AT TEN THOUSAND FEET, the world seems radically different than it does below.
This is especially true for someone like me who lives at an elevation of 10 feet, literally one thousand times lower than the place I found myself last June.
My senses, however, felt a thousand times more alive than ever despite physical exhaustion from thin air and trekking up and down the mountains.
It seemed despite two days of walking, driving, hiking and glassing mountainsides a personal dream of mine would remain elusive.
And then out of the corner of my eye, he appeared.
A bighorn ram emerged from the edge of a steep slope and made its way toward me.
I have encountered mountain lions, bears, monster whitetails, and even great white sharks in the wild but nothing compared to this. Through the lens of my camera, I was looking at the most majestic game animal in North America-the bighorn sheep.
This beautiful rocky mountain ram grazed near the slope’s edge and was joined by a smaller ram shortly. For a solid hour, I was within 30 yards of the animal that has fascinated me since childhood, and I am not sure I will ever be the same.
It was surreal. It was emotional, and it was inspiring.
North America has four main varieties of wild sheep-the Rocky Mountain bighorn, desert bighorn, stone sheep and Dall sheep. These make up the “Grand Slam”, a hunting quest few can endure or afford, but many hunters apply for sheep permits in western states in an attempt to at least get close to these mountain monarchs.
Desert Bighorn: This native of the Southwest is present from Mexico to the South, across the four corners into northern Nevada. They inhabit high desert with extremely trying conditions for hunters and sheep to survive.
Rocky Mountain Bighorn: The sheep with the largest range is the Rocky Mountain bighorn. They not only inhabit the mountains of Colorado, Montana and Canada but are also found in Nebraska and recently reinhabiting parts of Oklahoma. They can be found on the highest peaks and in the valleys and are an icon used on everything from trucks to sports uniforms.
Dall Sheep: Found only in Alaska and Western Canada this snow-white sheep is as beautiful as its epic landscape. Hunters who have pursued them say not to let the white color fool you because they may be a little easier to glass than other sheep but nothing else is easy about hunting them.
Stone Sheep: Found only in British Columbia and the Yukon these sheep have a unique coloration part bighorn and part Dall. Currently scientists are debating their exact makeup but for sheep hunters this may be the hardest to get and is most likely the most revered in North America due to its beauty and rarity.
California Bighorn: This relatively little known subspecies of the bighorn ranges in the arid high country of California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and British Columbia. They have been the subject of some controversy over their population status in recent years.
According to Gray Thornton, President of the Wild Sheep Foundation (WSF) there were around two million wild sheep in North America before European settlement of the West.
“Sheep numbers plummeted for a variety of reasons including diseases transmitted from domestic sheep, unregulated hunting and habitat loss, reaching their low point in the 1950s at around 25,000 in all of North America,” he said.
Now according to Thornton through cooperative efforts by western fish & game agencies and conservation organizations like WSF, bighorn sheep now number more than 80,000 in the western U.S. and Canada. Across North America, current estimates of all wild sheep are 170,000 to 190,000, with over 50 percent being Dall’s and Stone sheep in Alaska, British Columbia, the Northwest Territories, and Yukon.
Perhaps the greatest sheep comeback back is the desert bighorn of Texas.
By 1960 the last native bighorn had disappeared from their Trans-Pecos habitat in the remote mountains, and fledgling efforts to translocate sheep from other states met with resistance from nature-especially mountain lions.
But officials with the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD) persisted, and a group of hunters formed a Texas chapter of the Foundation For North American Wild Sheep (now WSF) that eventually merged into the Texas Bighorn Society.
From raising funds to create a breeding area for sheep in the Sierra Diablos to helping organize translocation efforts, these groups and others have overseen a Texas sheep population that moved from few to 1,500 in 50 years.
But officials with the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD) persisted, and a group of hunters formed what is now the Texas Bighorn Society. They, along with other hunter-conservationist groups, have helped bring these great animals back to huntable numbers.
“It’s an incredible comeback. And as long as we keep pushing forward great things can continue happening for desert bighorn sheep in Texas,” said Froylan Hernandez, TPWD” s desert bighorn sheep program leader.
Hernandez said sheep hunters are passionate and give back more than they take.
“They really care about these animals and prove it with their efforts and generosity.”
According to WSF officials, more than 22,000 sheep throughout North America have been translocated since programs began 90 years ago. This represents 1,500 separate trasnslocation operations which have recently proved to not only increase bighorn numbers but boost genetic diversity among wild sheep.
They estimate the per sheep cost of these efforts is $4,700. That breaks down as follows.
• Net-gun Trap & Transplant $800
• Diagnostic Lab & Disease Testing $400
• Store on Board GPS collar $3,500
WSF’s “Take One, Put One Back” program allows hunters to make a donation when buying a permit or a sheep hunt, drawing a special sheep permit, taking a sheep or just to “put a sheep on the mountain.”
Hunters have helped bighorns in many unique ways and a recently adopted program allows anyone of any income level to participate in sheep conservation actively.
IN 1981, a small group of bighorn supporters formed the Texas Chapter of FNAWS (Foundation for North American Wild Sheep) and the Texas Bighorn Society, and began an intense lobbying effort to obtain support for the re-introduction effort in the Texas Legislature and with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission.
These two groups later merged under the auspices of the Texas Bighorn Society. Their efforts garnered the support of House Speaker Gib Lewis, TPWD Commissioner Perry Bass, Director Charles Travis, and others for refunding the bighorn sheep program.
TBS is dedicated to returning bighorns to all their native ranges in the state, which would take the current numbers of 1,500 bighorns closer to 3000 of these desert monarchs. All money raised from membership dues and our annual Roundup Weekend and Auction is used exclusively to help return desert bighorns to the mountains and people of Texas.
For more information go to www.Texasbighornsociety.org
The desert bighorn sheep is now officially a celebrity in Texas.
A new conservation license plate features a stunning bighorn image, and those who purchase them for $30 get the satisfaction of knowing $22 goes directly to sheep conservation efforts of the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD).
The new plate design is a first for TPWD.
TPWD’s leadership along with the vision of the Texas Bighorn Society and help from the Wild Sheep Foundation, Dallas Safari Club and others have helped make this a modern-day conservation success story of epic proportions.
But the future is uncertain.
It will take a broader awareness of their presence in the arid Trans Pecos to support things like proper domestic sheep grazing practices, so their diseases do not impact the easily infected bighorns.
This license plate, along with the media blitz that has introduced it will go a long way and creating a path for bighorns to find their way into the mainstream Texas wildlife consciousness.
New generations must learn of these magnificent animals and be inspired to help them.
There is no question however the greatest help will come from hunters.
And while Texas bighorns offer one of America’s rarest hunting opportunities, there are opportunities.
Annually around 15 permits are issued most of which go to private landowners who have sheep on their properties. Other tags go to the Texas Bighorn Society, Wild Sheep Foundation and Texas Wildlife Association to auction off. Most of the funds come back directly to bighorn conservation efforts. The Texas Bighorn Society auction in July 2019 set its all time record for a Texas tag at $155,00 while the coveted Montana Rocky Mountain bighorn tags have fetched upwards of $300,000. Sheep hunters spend big when conservation is the goal.
For the rest of us, there are at least two opportunities through the Big Time Texas Hunts raffle system which offers a Texas bighorn, mule deer, pronghorn and whitetail and a separate bighorn only drawing. The chances are slim, but there is a chance.
Just like the limited time I had to spend in the mountains last June to photograph bighorns, these animals can seem totally out of reach, but hunters draw permits every year and about 50 percent of the Texas rams taken quality for the Boone & Crockett record book.
A ram appeared from the edge of possibility for me, and it is possible to draw a permit here or in other states.
It is good for hunters to have things that are difficult to obtain to remind us that nature can still offer the challenge of a lifetime.
Even drawing a permit guarantees nothing, as sheep hunting is the most challenging of all challenges in North America. They are wary and inhabit places that push everyone to their physical and mental limits.
Their conservation story and pursuit by hunters represent the best of what hunting can be.
Even if we never participate in it, we can dream.
And maybe that’s why bighorns are so revered.
They represent the dreams of hunters both fulfilled and unfulfilled and move us to do what is best for all wildlife and its habitat.
TF&G EDITOR-IN-CHIEF Chester Moore and his wife Lisa have founded the Conservation Classroom to help bring cutting-edge wildlife education to home school families as well as other students across America.
They are giving away a full month-long North American Wild Sheep curriculum to any educator whether home, private or public school. Texas Fish & Game sends out weekly lessons to more than 750 public school teachers and in August these will be sent to these educators.
“We love wild sheep in the Moore household and we want to educate young people about these great animals. This is our gift to wild sheep and to kids who love wildlife,” said Lisa Moore.
“We’re super excited to be able to give this away when Texas Fish & Game starts sending out its weekly lessons in August. Roy and Ardia Neves have been visionaries in partnering with public schools and this is a little something we want to do to not only help wildlife but honor them for their hard and often unnoticed work in this area,” she said.
To get the curriculum email [email protected].
—story by CHESTER MOORE