Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) staff have counted a record 1,193 desert bighorn sheep in aerial surveys August 14-September 9, up from 991 sheep last year. Numbers of the mountain sheep climbed slowly for decades, after TPWD and various partners began sheep reintroduction efforts some 60 years ago. But in recent years a threshold of some kind appears to have been cleared, with sheep population increases now gaining momentum.
“We rocked along for years with very low numbers, and that makes it hard for a population to gain momentum,” said Mike Pittman, TPWD Trans-Pecos Wildlife Management Area project leader. “You’ve heard of safety in numbers?—with sheep that’s very true. With larger herd groups, there are more eyes to help avoid predators. Also, increased social activity means ewes going to lambing areas are able to produce more sheep.”
The record sheep count makes possible a record number of hunting opportunities. Texas will allow 15 bighorn sheep hunts in the current season, which started September 1 and runs into next summer. Eleven of those hunts will go to private landowners, who have been instrumental in the bighorn comeback through efforts like modifying fences to facilitate sheep movement and constructing water facilities for sheep and other wildlife.
Of the other four hunts, one will go to the Wild Sheep Foundation (formerly North American Foundation for Wild Sheep), one to the next Texas Grand Slam winner, and two will be allocated to hunters who have applied for TPWD’s bighorn sheep drawn public hunts. Pittman said it’s fitting Texas hunters are benefiting, since hunter dollars and support have been fundamental to the bighorn comeback.
The continuing rise in sheep numbers also vindicates decades of work by the nonprofit Texas Bighorn Society (www.texasbighornsociety.org). The bighorn society is “tickled to death,” said Pittman.
“They’re seeing the fruits of their labors. They still construct water guzzlers for sheep every spring, providing materials, funding and manpower, either repairing 20-year-old facilities or building new ones. I believe they’ve raised easily more than $1.5 million for bighorn restoration since the early 1980s.”
The department is planning a news release with more information about bighorn sheep restoration and this year’s population survey.