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Texas Parks & Wildlife Restore Bighorns to Big Bend Ranch State Park

It looked like the opening of the television show "M*A*S*H" —a helicopter flying over a mountainscape carrying a passenger in need of care.

Personnel run out to meet the chopper, grab the patient and get to work.

But this is in West Texas at the Elephant Mountain Wildlife Management Area, and the patients are desert bighorn sheep. 

“This is why I got into this business in the first place. It's landscape-level conservation is what it is,” said Mike Hill, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Fort Davis Regional Director.

He along with others have been working over half a century to resurrect the desert bighorns in the wilds of Texas. 

“If this works, and the population increases, it’s not ironclad proof, but it’s a pretty strong indicator that the rest of the ecosystem is in pretty good shape,” said Hill. 

This is the latest phase in a long plan to repopulate the bighorns.

They are a silent animal. They don’t make a bleating sound like a domesticated sheep. But they are an iconic animal of the southwest, which was wiped out in Texas due to unregulated hunting and disease.

To rebuild a new population in 1987, Texas Wildlife officials released 20 bighorns onto Elephant Mountain, 25 miles south of Alpine. And those sheep prospered. On the day of the capture operation there were about 160 bighorns on Elephant Mountain. Forty of them would be captured and transported to a new home. 

“We’re taking the temperature. We’re taking up samples—blood samples, fecal samples. We’re attaching radio collars to every animal. Putting them in the trailer for transport to the ranch,” said Mike Pittman, the wildlife manager of the area and he’s been called the “ramrod” of the operation.

He’s watching closely as the bighorns arrive and are carried to the biologists’ stations. It takes a days work but the trailers fill up with Bighorns. And they are hauled about 85 miles to Big Bend Ranch State Park. 

“You girls ready to get out?” Pittman asks the bighorns when they reach their destination. 

Pittman swings opens the gate of the trailer and the bighorns make a run for blue sky and open country.

They bound out of the trailer and quickly climb up the steep sides of the mesa, only briefly looking over their shoulders to make sure they weren’t being pursued. The wildlife officials and volunteers stand in silent awe as the bighorns disappear into the brush. 

Pittman breaks the spell with a quip: “Anyone know the words to 'Born Free?'”

David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi