Dozens of majestic bighorn sheep have moved into a Texas state park as part of wildlife restoration efforts aimed at returning the sheep to their historic range.
Twelve curly-horned rams and 34 ewes plucked by helicopter from one rugged area of West Texas now call the Bofecillos Mountains along the Rio Grande in Big Bend Ranch State Park home. The capture and release days before Christmas was the latest step in a decades-long restoration project to bring the mountain sheep back to their range after unfettered hunting, fencing and disease from other animals decimated their numbers.
All but gone from Texas by the 1960s from more than 1,500 in the late 1800s, efforts to restore them in Texas' Trans-Pecos region have proved successful. This fall, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologists tallied 1,115 sheep in Texas, up from 822 in 2006 and 352 in 2002.
The 29 sheep captured on the first of the two-day endeavor sprang away from the trailers and crates they traveled inside for about 80 miles and quickly scampered up one mountain's steep terrain. About 80 volunteers, conservation supporters and state and federal wildlife officials cheered them on and applauded.
Soon one could see only a parade of white-gray dots bounding near the top of their first mountain in their new home. The release was their first reintroduction into a Texas state park.
"The bighorn belong here," Mike Pittman, the area's wildlife manager, said Tuesday. "They're part of the ecosystem."
Bighorn sheep, which can bounce up to 20 feet from ledge to ledge, some as narrow as 2 inches, prefer bluffs and steep slopes with sparse vegetation and an unobstructed view. They can travel up to 30 mph on level ground and 15 mph up steep mountain slopes. Rams fighting for mates often butt heads for hours during breeding season, which begins in November.
The 46 animals needed to be moved from Elephant Mountain Wildlife Management Area, about 25 miles south of Alpine, a small town of about 6,500, because of a surplus of sheep for the available habitat. Most of the ewes are pregnant and will lamb in several months, officials said.
Work began early the first day as the helicopter scoured the top of Elephant Mountain. Trappers in the chopper fired net-guns on top of each sheep, which then were hobbled and blindfolded for the ride back to the work areas.
Once the pilot laid each sheep gently on the ground, workers removed the slings around them and carried them to be placed into specially designed stretchers. Biologists went to work, taking blood samples, swabbing their noses and ears and attaching radio-transmitting collars to track the animals. Their teeth were checked to age them.
The unseasonably warm weather gave biologists concern and the animals' temperature was monitored throughout the exams. Water was sprayed on some of the sheep to try to cool them.
The ewes were then carried to a livestock trailer where their blindfolds were removed as they were put inside. Rams went into more sturdy crates.
The two-day operation costs as much as $40,000. Donations to the Bighorn Sheep Society and other nonprofit groups along with revenue from 16 hunting permits — 12 on private land — issued this year covered the cost. Permits are issued when scientists determine there is a surplus of older rams which now longer help in building the animal's population.
The company's wildlife coordinator, Bonnie McKinney, said bighorn are integral to the region's wildlife's landscape.
"When you bring them back, you're putting it back in balance," she said. "It was man that messed it up but we can fix it."
Desert bighorns live in dry, rugged, mountainous terrain, and eat seasonally available plants such as yucca, prickly pear and wild onions. Their predators include mountain lions, black bears, and golden eagles.
In 1954, Texas, other states and federal wildlife agencies and private conservation groups developed a cooperative agreement to begin restoring the bighorn. They got desert bighorns from states including Arizona, Nevada, Utah and Mexico, and set up brooding sites in far West Texas.
The last capture-and-release event happened in 2000, when about 20 were moved from Elephant Mountain to another wildlife management area.
"It never gets old," Pittman said of the release events through the years. "It's always exhilarating."