Texas Moves Bighorn Sheep into Big Bend Ranch State Park

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Forty-six desert bighorn sheep bolted out of transport trailers and up into the Bofecillos Mountains along the Rio Grande this week. The 12 rams and 34 ewes were captured by helicopter at Elephant Mountain Wildlife Management Area and moved to Big Bend Ranch State Park on Tuesday and Wednesday, Dec. 21-22.

Cheers and applause broke out among the crowd of about 80 people witnessing the sheep release Tuesday, many of whom had been working toward this moment for years. It's the latest phase of a multi-partner wildlife restoration project begun in 1954, and the first bighorn reintroduction at a Texas state park.

In the early hours of both days, helicopter service Quicksilver Air made multiple trips around Elephant Mountain. The private contractor hired by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department captured sheep on the run using a net gun, slung them in bags below the flying copter, returned them to the wildlife management area headquarters and, with marvelous expertise, lowered them gently to the earth without landing.

Ground crews then carried the blindfolded sheep to check-in stations where veterinarians took blood samples and wildlife biologists fitted the sheep with radio tracking collars before loading them in trailers to await the journey to Big Bend Ranch.

Biologists were concerned because of unseasonably warm weather, and check-in crews continually monitored each sheep’s temperature this morning, spraying water on the animals to keep them cool. But, except for a short delay caused by a blowout that required a quick tire change on the sheep trailer carrying the five rams, the operation unfolded in textbook fashion, and all sheep arrived safely at their new home.

The sheep were released about 20 miles west of Lajitas on FM 170, the river road, near Panther Canyon. Within minutes the sheep had bounded up the rocky mountains into the state park and were soon visible only as small gray-white dots winding up to the summits.

The sheep were moved from Elephant Mountain WMA for several reasons. Because of the success of restoration efforts in recent years, the area had a surplus of animals that needed to be removed to maintain a balance with the available habitat, providing a source population to restore sheep to their historic range elsewhere in Texas. Big Bend Ranch contains quality sheep habitat, and restoring them at the park will restore the native wildlife ecology and provide an outstanding new visitor wildlife viewing opportunity.

For background information on this story, see the Bighorn Sheep Release at Big Bend Ranch news roundup of online resources on the TPWD website, which includes the Dec. 17 story "Texas Desert Bighorn Sheep Restoration Hits New Milestone."