From the Northern reaches of the Llano Estacado through the oil-rich Permian Basin to the Big Bend borderlands of Texas, This is Nature Notes.
The reintroduction of desert bighorn sheep into West Texas is one of the great wildlife success stories in the state, and in the country.
Bighorn used to roam in Texas, but by 1960, they were gone. Now, bighorn are found in mountain ranges from the Rio Grande to the northern Trans-Pecos, and the herd is more than 1,500 strong. As bighorns return, scientists are learning more about this majestic creature.
Before 1880, bighorn roamed in 15 mountain ranges in West Texas, and scientists estimate the population at 2,500 or more.
In 1987, Texas Parks and Wildlife reintroduced bighorn at Elephant Mountain Wildlife Management Area, south of Alpine. The population flourished. Working with private landowners, the agency has transported sheep to other ranges.
Bighorn populations are now established in Black Gap Wildlife Management Area, in the Bofecillos Mountains in Big Bend Ranch State Peark, in the Van Horn Mountains, at Nine Point Mesa and, most recently, in the Sierra Vieja, south of Valentine. The Sierra Diablo Mountains, and the adjacent Beach and Baylor ranges, north of Van Horn, sustain 800 animals.
Building on its success, Texas Parks and Wildlife is working aggressively to return bighorns to as much of their historic range as possible.
Dr. Louis Harveson is the director of the Borderlands Research Institute in Alpine, which is assisting in the bighorn restoration effort. Harveson said that to see these animals, in the Texas environments to which they’re so finely adapted, is a powerful experience.
“The first release that I went to – it was a religious experience,” Harveson said. “It was absolutely impressive to see them get up the side of the mountain. They stopped for a second – and [it] was just jaw-dropping. It’s an impressive sight, and just an honor to be part of that program.”
The mountains of Far West Texas are forbidding terrain. But desert bighorn are drawn to the region’s jagged ridges and steep mountain slopes.
Bighorn’s hooves are uniquely elastic and concave. In rugged terrain, they’re peerless in their agility. Mountainsides become their sanctuary.