Possible New Bighorn State Record

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Two Wheeler Peak bighorn sheep hunters may have brought home a state record trophy from their September once-in-a-lifetime hunts. Rick Hooley of Navajo Dam and Jennifer Chapel of Quemado braved snow, fog, sleet, rain and raiding bears to take rams with green scores of 192.5 and 192 3/8, respectively. The current New Mexico Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep record is 190 5/8, taken from the Pecos by Don Wenner in 1996.

"A green score is done within a few days of the hunt," explained Elise Goldstein, Department bighorn sheep biologist. "A score only becomes official when done at least 60 days after the kill by a Boone and Crockett official scorer."

The green score is usually slightly higher than the official score because horns shrink down as they dry, Goldstein said.

Both hunters faced rugged terrain and raging weather, camping and slogging for several days through an early winter storm at 12,000 feet elevation.

"It was the hardest hunt I've ever been on, both physically and mentally," said Hooley. "The weather was so rough. We covered a lot of territory those first five days, 20 miles on foot, but didn't see much because of the storm."

Hooley ran out of food when a bear raided his camp, leaving him and guide Perry Harper with two granola bars between the two of them.

"We found the rams Monday when it cleared off, but they were a long way off where we couldn't get to them," he said. "We started heading their way, planning to bivouac that night. We ran into them and by luck they didn't see us."

Hooley got his ram Tuesday at 9 a.m. and returned to camp to find the bear had torn up the tent again and eaten all that was left -- his vitamins. He called outfitter Mick Chapel by cell phone, who brought in mules from Reserve to pack the ram out that night as another snowstorm moved in.

"I don't care if he's a record ram or not," said Hooley. "He is what he is, he's a trophy to me. It was very exciting, a very good adventure."

Hooley had help from Harper and outfitter Mick Chapel of Quemado, who offered their assistance without a fee to gain credibility in sheep hunts, said Hooley.

"I didn't really need a guide, I've been hunting all my life," he said. "But I was glad for the help. Perry kept me motivated, especially those days I'd rather sit by the fire and read a book."

Jennifer Chapel had help from her husband and her two sons, who are seven and nine years old. She shot her ram at about 6:30 the evening of Sept. 12.

"The weather came in, clouds were low and it was snowing and raining," she recalled. "The next morning it rained and we had to stay in the tent for six hours."

A bear raided Chapel's camp twice, leaving them with no food.

"We had to come out to get dry and get some food," she said. "Then we went back in to get the ram about two days later. The weather had cleared and we found the ram. He was frozen, so we were able to save the face and we'll probably do a shoulder mount."

Chapel calls the ram "Scarface" for the unique scars on its nose and face.

"This is an indication that the sheep are doing really well on Wheeler," said Goldstein. "High quality rams are a result of several factors, including habitat quality."

Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep were reintroduced to the Wheeler Peak Wilderness by the Department in 1993 with animals taken from the thriving Pecos herd. The first Wheeler Peak hunt followed in 1999.