Home on the Range?
How an ambitious plan to reintroduce desert bighorn sheep to Big Bend Ranch State Park has ignited a fresh debate about the politics of wildlife management, budget priorities, and who gets to play God in far West Texas.
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Editors’ Note: On March 20, 2012, shortly after this story went to press, Texas Parks and Wildlife executive director Carter Smith announced that the department would suspend its policy of lethally removing burros from Big Bend Ranch State Park until the feasibility of non-lethal removal options could be assessed. As an initial step, Parks and Wildlife and the Humane Society of the United States will share the cost of an aerial survey to establish how many burros are currently in the park.
In October 2007 a park ranger named Raul Martinez was working on a road in Fresno Canyon, in Big Bend Ranch State Park, when he smelled something funny. Martinez picked his way up a hill through cactus and creosote to a spot about two hundred yards from the road, where he came upon a dead burro. A few feet away he found another. Although predators had been chewing on them, Martinez could tell that the animals had been shot. The smell by now was overwhelming. Before he was forced to retreat, he counted seven in all, strung out in a rough line, every one of them apparently slaughtered with a high-powered rifle. Martinez was heartbroken: like many of his fellow park employees, he loved the wild burros, shaggy descendants of animals that had escaped over the decades from ranches on both sides of the river.
An investigation by the Internal Affairs Division of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department came to a startling conclusion: the burros had been killed not by some renegade hunter but by two high-ranking Parks and Wildlife officials, who were preparing the park for a planned reintroduction of desert bighorn sheep, a species that hadn’t been seen there for more than fifty years. The restoration project called for the removal of the nonnative burros, which have been known in other parts of the country to compete with bighorns for forage and water, but this decision had not been communicated to the park rangers before the shooting began.
The Big Bend Sentinel, a weekly newspaper, broke the story of the burros that winter—about seventy had been killed in all—and statewide media followed up, which is how many Texans learned about the plan to release bighorns inside Big Bend Ranch in the first place. It was supposed to have been a triumphant moment for Parks and Wildlife, a major milestone in a decades-long effort to bring bighorns back to their historic range. Instead it was a public relations disaster. Officials ordered a halt to the killings, and the furor gradually faded away. In 2010, however, as Parks and Wildlife prepared to release its first bighorns into the park, the department quietly resumed the practice.
This past January the Wild Burro Protection League used a burro-drawn wagon to deliver petitions opposing the policy to the state capitol. The following morning, the Austin American-Statesman ran a photo of a nine-year-old girl atop a very cute burro, and Parks and Wildlife officials once again found themselves on the defensive. Parks and Wildlife executive director Carter Smith is currently in discussions with the Humane Society of the United States to assess the feasibility of trapping and relocating the burros, though no plan has been finalized.
But as it turns out, burros are only part of the story. Parks and Wildlife also has a “lethal removal policy” for other animals that compete with bighorns, including elk and aoudad, an exotic type of horned sheep that was brought to Texas from Africa as a game species in the fifties. In addition, the department routinely traps and kills mountain lions—the bighorn sheep’s main predator—on public lands in which bighorns have been reintroduced: the 300,000-acre Big Bend Ranch as well as three wildlife management areas in the Trans-Pecos. (Big Bend National Park does not participate in the bighorn program.)
It may seem like a lot of trouble to go to on behalf of one animal, but the bighorn sheep is no ordinary species. It is a highly prized big-game animal found in isolated pockets of the Rockies and the desert Southwest, and the department, which issues permits for bighorn hunts, has a great deal invested in its successful reintroduction. With the recent releases in Big Bend Ranch—46 sheep in 2010 and 95 in 2011—as many as 8 separate populations of bighorns can now be found in the mountain ranges of the Trans-Pecos. Yet the program’s mission is far from complete. The department’s private partner, the Texas Bighorn Society, a group of sheep-hunting enthusiasts and conservationists who have provided considerable funding for the reintroduction program, would like to see the bighorn returned to its entire historic range, which is to say almost all of the mountains of far West Texas. It is one of the most ambitious programs that Parks and Wildlife has ever undertaken; fully realized, it would represent a major step toward restoring the pre-nineteenth-century ecosystem of the entire Trans-Pecos.
Conservation planning on such a large scale is seldom discussed in Texas, where 97 percent of the land is privately owned. Few would argue that such a vision isn’t sorely needed; the problem is that not everyone agrees on what a restored Trans-Pecos should look like—and not all visions are compatible. “As fish and wildlife managers, we have to make choices about what we manage to realize our conservation goals,” Smith told me. “This is not an either/or proposition between mountain lions and bighorn sheep.”
We think of wilderness as the opposite of civilization: there is the natural world, and there is the world of man. But in a place as thoroughly exploited as Texas, where even the most remote areas have been mined, grazed, developed, or bent to the will of some other, long-forgotten enterprise, wilderness is something that must be created too. While the science we call wildlife management requires research and years of hard-won experience, it is, at its core, an exercise in politics, like every other human endeavor. In the Trans-Pecos, this means that animals with constituencies, like the desert bighorn sheep, can count on a place in a newly restored wilderness. The rest of God’s creation, it seems, is on its own.
Desert landscapes are often described as timeless, and the vast emptiness and staggering vistas of the Big Bend certainly suggest a land that somehow escaped the creeping curse of modernity. But this is an illusion. In fact, the landscape here has changed dramatically in a relatively short period of time. If you walk through the low-lying areas of Big Bend Ranch, you will find a hard-packed desert floor checkered with clumps of creosote and cactus, but a visitor in the nineteenth century would have found the desert covered in two feet of dense grama and tobosa grass. Buffalo and pronghorn antelope moved across the plains. Bighorn sheep and mule deer occupied the high country, along with wolves, grizzly bears, and mountain lions. Huge cottonwoods lined the banks of the Rio Grande, then a broader and swifter river. Golden eagles were as common then as red-tailed hawks are today.
After the U.S. Army drove the last bands of Plains Indians out of the region in the 1870’s, immense herds of Longhorns arrived, driven by a handful of entrepreneurs in search of open range. Commercial hunters appeared in the 1880’s, along with the railroads, and began shipping huge quantities of bighorn, deer, and pronghorn meat to northern cities. Mining boomtowns sprung up at quicksilver strikes, and the cottonwoods were chopped down to feed the smelters. Farmers drained the Rio Grande for irrigation. Overgrazed for decades, the grass was largely gone by 1910. In crept the creosote, whose roots poisoned the ground and whose leaves virtually no animal will eat.
What finally doomed the bighorns was the arrival of large-scale domestic sheep operations, which replaced cattle ranching in the late twenties. A bighorn has about as much in common with its domestic cousin as a wolf does with a poodle. There is almost no terrain too rough or too dry for desert bighorns, which can go for months without drinking, getting all the moisture they need from grasses and forbs. Hardy as bighorns were, however, they had no natural resistance to the diseases and parasites that the nonnative domestic sheep brought to the Trans-Pecos. In 1945, when the state’s entire bighorn population had dwindled from an estimated high of three thousand sheep to fewer than two hundred, the Legislature created a refuge called the Sierra Diablo Wildlife Management Area, in the Sierra Diablo Mountains, about twenty miles north of Van Horn. But by then, the remaining herd was too small to sustain itself, and before long, they disappeared. Early efforts at restocking sheep were largely exercises in frustration. In the late fifties sixteen bighorns from Arizona were shipped to the Black Gap Wildlife Management Area, east of Big Bend National Park, but disease and predation wiped out most of the herd. Aoudads, which proved much more adaptive and aggressive than the native sheep, covered much of the bighorns’ range, further hindering efforts. By the late seventies, the effort to bring bighorns back to Texas had run out of steam.
The program was resuscitated in 1981 by Dr. James “Red” Duke, the world-renowned trauma surgeon. Duke was on duty when President John Kennedy and Governor John Connally were rushed to Parkland Hospital, in Dallas, but most people remember him for his televised health reports, in which he gave medical advice in an outsized Texas accent from behind an enormous red mustache. He was equally famous in the insular world of big-game trophy hunters, and bighorn sheep were his passion. Duke was the driving force behind the creation of the Texas Bighorn Society, which essentially took control of the state’s moribund program. Then, as now, Parks and Wildlife was strapped for funding, so TBS members raised $200,000 to build a brood pasture at Sierra Diablo, which they stocked with sheep procured mainly from Nevada, Arizona, and Utah. Over time, the herd grew to the point that animals began to leave the refuge and repopulate privately held lands in the adjacent Baylor and Beach mountains. In 1985 a rancher, impressed with the TBS’s work, donated a 23,000-acre spread south of Alpine known as Elephant Mountain for the primary purpose of bighorn sheep propagation, and sheep from Sierra Diablo were brought in to start a new herd. Eventually, a thriving bighorn population was even established in the old Black Gap WMA.
The three WMAs—Sierra Diablo, Elephant Mountain, and Black Gap—began operating essentially as sheep factories: predators and exotic game were controlled, access by the public was limited, and water was provided to keep the animals healthy and happy. The results have been remarkable by any reckoning. By 1990, the number of sheep had become stable enough that a hunter was allowed to shoot a ram at Sierra Diablo, the first bighorn legally taken since 1903. In 2011 sixteen permits were issued, and today an estimated 1,200 bighorns live along eight mountain ranges, bringing the population in the Trans-Pecos back to what it was believed to have been in the 1880’s.
Officials acknowledge that this success would not have been possible without the assistance of the TBS, which has donated more than $2 million to the department’s sheep efforts over the years. The group remains intimately involved in the program. Members build and maintain rain catchment and storage devices, called guzzlers, high in the mountains so that sheep can avoid watering in canyon bottoms, where mountain lions can easily ambush them. The TBS also helped pay for the lethal removal of aoudads at Big Bend Ranch, which was accomplished from a helicopter. At least as important to the program’s success, however, has been a change in the way landowners in the Trans-Pecos view wildlife. As commercial sheep and goat ranching began to disappear in the seventies, game gradually replaced livestock as a major revenue source in much of the region. Landowners found that if they managed their habitat carefully, they could earn tens of thousands of dollars per year selling trophy hunts for mule deer and pronghorns.
The revenue potential from bighorns is far greater. Each year, Parks and Wildlife officials fly a helicopter over sheep habitats to determine how many permits for “harvestable” rams should be issued. Permits for animals spotted on state lands are auctioned off—enthusiasts have paid more than $150,000—or offered to the public in a lottery to raise money for the department’s sheep program. Permits for rams spotted on private land are issued to the landowners themselves, who can sell trophy hunts for between $45,000 and $70,000 apiece. One bighorn, in other words, can be worth as much to a rancher as a hundred yearling cattle.
The significance of these permits to bighorn aficionados is difficult for the uninitiated to understand. In the world of trophy hunting, the bighorn is spoken about in reverent terms; hunters talk of “sheep fever” and commemorate their hunts with detailed stories on websites like the one maintained by the TBS. (Only a handful of trophy hunters, like Red Duke, have had the wherewithal to achieve the coveted “Grand Slam”—collecting each of North America’s four types of indigenous wild sheep.) Hunting whitetails is a weekend with friends, but bagging a bighorn is the accomplishment of a lifetime.
If all goes as planned, some lucky hunter may one day shoot a bighorn at Big Bend Ranch. In January I went to the release site, a broad mesa looming over the Rio Grande about ten miles west of Lajitas, with Froylan Hernandez, who administers Parks and Wildlife’s bighorn sheep program. We stood near the confluence of two of the park’s signature canyons and swept our binoculars along the tops of the broken rocks that lined the ridges above us. “They’re somewhat curious animals,” Hernandez told me. “If they hear us, they might come to the rim and check us out.” After thirty minutes, he spotted a small group at the eastern end of the mesa, silhouetted against the sky. We watched them—a ram, two ewes, and what appeared to be a yearling—as they made their way along the ridgeline. Hernandez seemed genuinely pleased that the sheep had made an appearance, and not just for my sake. “People are always asking, ‘Did you see a ram? How big were the horns?’ ” he said. “But I’m just as happy watching ewes and yearlings.”
When I asked Hernandez whether the park’s remaining burro population was hindering his efforts on behalf of the sheep, he gave a surprising answer. “Burros don’t compete with bighorns, at least not here in our park,” he said. The burros tended to stay at lower elevations, whereas the sheep spent most of their time on top of mountains and mesas. I mentioned the department’s official management plan for bighorns, which called for the removal of burros. “That’s unfortunate,” he said. “There’s been a lot of misinformation, a lot of miscommunication with the public.” Later that afternoon, veteran park ranger David Long offered another variation: the burros did compete with bighorns, but that wasn’t why they were being removed. “It’s about their impact on the habitat,” he told me. “For example, we pulled out invasive salt cedar along the river and planted native trees. Burros came in and destroyed every one of them.” Long pointed out that even the Sierra Club had called for the removal of burros from desert bighorn habitat, in a policy adopted in 1981.
A Parks and Wildlife fact sheet on wild burros issued last October struck a similar note, seeking to distance the bighorn reintroduction program from burro killings. “Burro removal is not done to increase hunting opportunities, but rather to protect the park’s native plant and animal populations,” the statement reads. “What is at stake is the protection of the desert ecosystem of the park.”
That may well be, yet the two men who did the actual shooting in 2007 told department investigators in no uncertain terms that they killed the burros on behalf of the bighorns, according to the official report on the incident. “[The] Wildlife [Division] tells us that we have no chance of getting a population of bighorn sheep established as long as we have aoudads and burros in the park,” Dan Sholly, the deputy director of state parks, told investigators. The other shooter, Mike Hill, who was then a regional parks director, agreed: “Dan and I began to shoot the burros about a year ago. We started it because of the bighorn sheep plan for restocking at the park.” The idea was to remove the burros as quietly as possible, before the seldom-visited park implemented a new public-use plan, which was likely to bring in more tourists and backcountry visitors.
Hernandez told me he respected the passion of those who’d come to the defense of the burros. “It’s not that we want to shoot these animals,” he said, but previous efforts to trap and remove the burros had been unsuccessful. He would like to see a compromise, though he could not envision what that might entail. “I guess that’s why I’m a wildlife biologist and not a park manager.”
The qualities that make a landscape desirable, or even those that make a landscape truly wild, are subjective. Big Bend Ranch’s first management plan, drafted shortly after the land was acquired by the state in 1988, called for a resident herd of Longhorns, which are, after all, nonnative as well, to be rounded up and removed. Local ranchers, citing the Longhorn’s place in the region’s history, prevailed on the Legislature to intervene, and today a small herd remains. For years the park offered yearly round-up trips, in which visitors could take a turn at driving animals from one pasture to another.
Even a concept as seemingly straightforward as whether an animal is native or nonnative turns out to be fuzzier than it first appears. Burros, like horses, were brought to the New World by the Spanish five centuries ago. However, the sixteen horses brought to Veracruz by Hernán Cortés in 1519 were not the first to appear in North America. Modern horses, along with a species that at least superficially resembled the burro, were common on this continent until around 12,000 years ago, when they suddenly disappeared, along with many other species of large mammals. Nobody knows why, exactly, but the extinction coincided with the arrival of big-game hunters—the Clovis culture—who crossed the land bridge from Siberia to Alaska. Does that make equines native or not? Twelve thousand years seems like a long time, but when compared with evolutionary time, the animals disappeared quite recently. The grasses found today in Big Bend Ranch, for example, evolved over millions of years in concert with herds of prehistoric equines and, as a consequence, thrive in response to brief periods of intense grazing. It’s a good rationale for maintaining a small Longhorn herd but not, it seems, a lifeline for the burros.
If the burro’s claim on the Big Bend is tenuous, how solid is the bighorn’s? There is only one species of bighorn sheep, Ovis canadensis, but at least seven subspecies have been identified. Ovis canadensis mexicana is the name given to the race that once ranged from the Trans-Pecos down into the Chihuahuan Desert of northern Mexico. But only some of the sheep imported to the mountains of far West Texas came from northern Mexico; the majority came from the deserts of Nevada, Arizona, and Utah, which makes them mostly Ovis canadensis nelsoni. (A few also came from Baja California: Ovis canadensis weemsi.) Recent research suggests there may be no real difference between the various desert subspecies, though the original designations are still used by biologists like Hernandez. He told me that, in his opinion, the sheep in the park today are not the same animals that were found here when the Europeans arrived. Some people even believe that the bighorns of the Big Bend were once a unique race of their own, he said, separate from their cousins in Mexico. If that is true, then the wilderness once found in these mountains can never be re-created, since no descendants of those sheep remain.
Research on the flora and fauna of the region is markedly sparse, and determining whether and when a given species was present in the Trans-Pecos is somewhat akin to tracking an animal across a patch of hard desert. Consider the elk: officially, it is classified as an exotic species, which means its hunting is unregulated in Texas. Yet nobody disputes that a subspecies called Merriam’s elk was common in the Guadalupe Mountains, near the New Mexico border, until it was hunted out in the 1880’s. Meat hunters nearly eliminated elk from North America altogether, but a small herd was preserved in Yellowstone National Park, and a few dozen descendants were brought to the Guadalupes by a ranch owner in the twenties. They were initially labeled game animals, which provided for a regulated hunting season with bag limits, and they retained that designation until 1997, when a coalition of farmers and hunters lobbied the Legislature to revoke the elk’s citizenship status. Elk by that time were thriving, and farmers wanted the ability to destroy animals caught grazing crops, while ranchers wanted to sell trophy hunts without the hassle of obtaining state permits. Today any elk found in Texas outside of Guadalupe Mountains National Park is living on borrowed time.
This includes state-owned land, as a real estate investor named Chris Gill discovered when he began stocking elk on his Circle Ranch, thirty miles south of the Guadalupes. Gill’s property is near the Sierra Diablo WMA, and bighorns, elk, and mule deer moved freely back and forth between the two. In 2010 Gill learned that Parks and Wildlife staff had been routinely shooting elk found at Sierra Diablo. Gill’s animals were competing with the bighorns in the WMA—drinking from the guzzlers, eating the forbs—so they had to go. When Gill protested that the elk had just as much claim to the land as bighorns, Carter Smith explained to Gill that, officially speaking, elk are only native to the Guadalupes. “There is not more than twenty miles between the Guadalupe and the Sierra Diablo mountains,” Gill told me. “You’re going to tell me that elk didn’t move between those ranges for thousands of years?”
Gill has become a fierce critic of Parks and Wildlife. Mike Pittman, who oversees all of the WMAs in the Trans-Pecos and lives at the base of Elephant Mountain, told me he tried to work with Gill. “He has alienated all of his neighbors,” he said, as we drove up a steep and perilously degraded jeep trail to the top of the mountain on a windy morning in January. “Without consulting anybody, he just decided he was going to introduce elk up there, and they have spread throughout those mountains.” Other ranchers adjacent to the Sierra Diablo have entered into agreements with the department in which they commit to manage their habitat for bighorns—which means practicing predator control as well as limiting elk and aoudad populations. In exchange, they share an annual bighorn permit on a rotating basis, regardless of whether sheep are found on their property.
The top of Elephant Mountain is remarkably flat and covered with grass—a bighorn’s paradise. We could see the tiny town of Marathon far below, and off to the south, barely visible through the morning haze, the Chisos Mountains in the heart of Big Bend National Park. The bighorns were not hard to find. Bumping along on a jeep track, we drove to within a hundred yards of a group of eight, including a ram that Pittman judged to be eight or nine years old and ready to harvest.
Pittman stopped his Dodge pickup next to a guzzler built by the Texas Bighorn Society and got out to examine a malfunctioning camera that was supposed to provide live images of drinking sheep to the TBS website. He pulled out an alcohol wipe and began removing bird droppings from the unit’s solar panel. Pittman didn’t have much time to ponder the politics of shooting burros or the finer points of the debate over the elk’s historic range—although he has spent some time perusing Gill’s own website, which features a meticulously documented case against the department’s wildlife management practices. “A lot of things Mr. Gill quotes is in the Pleistocene,” he said. “A lot has changed since then.”
Nearly twenty years ago, a writer for TEXAS MONTHLY accompanied Pittman and his partner, Billy Pat McKinney, through Big Bend Ranch as the pair tracked down a mountain lion they had recently trapped and fitted with a radio collar. They were conducting a five-year study in which the movements and habits of sixteen collared lions were carefully charted. Pittman and McKinney learned a great deal about how the animals survive in such a harsh environment, but the study also contained a startling revelation about how they died. By the time the study ended, thirteen of the collared lions had been killed by ranchers when the animals, which have enormous home ranges, wandered out of the state park. Another was shot after it approached two people at a boat dock on the Rio Grande. The last two were killed by ranchers shortly after the study ended, when they too traveled outside the park’s boundaries.
Such is the fate of the mountain lion in Texas, the only state in the union where the killing of lions is still virtually unregulated. In most of the other fourteen states where lions are common, they are classified as game animals, meaning bag limits are established and hunting seasons enforced. Ranchers who want to kill a lion out of season because it is preying on their stock typically must apply for a permit. In Texas the animals are routinely trapped much as they have been since the first cattle ranchers arrived in the 1880’s, or hunted for sport with dogs. The accepted goal in those days was to remove all predators from the land, particularly ones that preyed on livestock. Coyotes and golden eagles were later hunted from small planes, and predator control evolved into sport, as aerial hunting clubs proliferated in the Big Bend region. J. O. Casparis, who more or less invented the sport of killing eagles with shotguns while airborne, claimed to have downed eight thousand of the birds between 1945 and 1952. By the late fifties, they were mostly gone from the Big Bend.
Because Texas does not track the number of lions killed by ranchers or sport hunters, nobody knows the size of the lion population in the Trans-Pecos. It is safe to say, however, that one hundred years ago there were far more than there are now. A trapper hired by Homer Wilson, who ran a sheep operation in the thirties, once killed 52 lions in a single year, in the Chisos Mountains. Still, because of increased sightings, there is a general sense that the lion population is thriving in Texas and throughout the Southwest. Yet increased contact between humans and lions could be just as much a function of having more humans living in lion habitat than ever before, especially around sprawling metropolises like Phoenix and Las Vegas.
Pittman and McKinney did sound a cautionary note in the conclusion of their study, which was published in 1999, about the heavy toll predator control was taking on lions in the Big Bend. But the authors nevertheless recommended keeping the lion’s status as a non-game animal. This was based in part on a pair of suppositions that, thirteen years on, seem too hopeful: that intense predator-control programs around the park were a temporary phenomenon and that large public tracts like Big Bend Ranch would continue to provide undisturbed lion habitat for the indefinite future. Lions, of course, are now being killed in the park itself. The potential spread of bighorns, the most valuable trophy in Texas, to private lands adjacent to the park, meanwhile, suggests that lion trapping is not likely to fall out of favor.
In fact, some of this trapping on private land will likely be done at the taxpayer’s expense. Texas Wildlife Services, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has trapped lions and other predators for years on behalf of ranchers who complain of lost livestock. In the mid-nineties the agency began trapping predators to protect wildlife as well, an acknowledgment of the increasing importance of game to the state’s economy. From 2006 to 2010, the agency killed 153 lions in Texas, with the protection of wildlife cited in 53 of those instances. Parks and Wildlife, for their part, killed 58 lions at the three Trans-Pecos WMAs between 2000 and 2007, the most recent figures the department could provide.
Hernandez told me that his lion-control program at Big Bend Ranch, which relies on leg-hold snares placed in prime sheep habitat, was only temporary. “The idea is just to do it until we get a stable population, maybe one hundred and fifty to two hundred animals,” he told me. “Just to give them a fighting chance.” But when I asked him how long that might take, there was no clear answer. “If we have a few good years of lambing,” he said, “then maybe just two or three years.” But last year hardly any lambs were born in the park, because of the drought. It took decades to get solid populations of bighorns established in places like Sierra Diablo and Black Gap. Even with well-established herds, lions are still routinely trapped at all three WMAs. This results in more sheep than the habitat can support, which encourages bighorns to move onto adjacent private lands and provides Parks and Wildlife with brood stock to repopulate new areas in the Trans-Pecos.
Smith acknowledged that no one could predict when lion trapping at Big Bend Ranch would end. “The nature of our business is nature: complicated, unpredictable, and messy,” he said. But he rejected the idea that trapping on public lands was damaging the lions’ long-term prospects, or that bringing bighorns back to every far West Texas mountain range necessarily meant bringing predator control too. Some landowners would trap, and some would not, he predicted. “I think we can all agree that West Texas is more interesting with lions than without.”
Yet the incentive to trap is undeniable: if a single ram is worth $45,000 or more, when will it be a good time to stop killing lions who kill sheep? Almost every effort at reintroducing a prey species requires some level of predator control to be successful, but the question becomes how much is necessary and for how long. “Too often we see lion control used to prop up artificially high numbers of prey,” said John Laundré, a lion researcher at the State University of New York at Oswego. “If they stop controlling lions, the number of sheep will fall to meet the amount of safe habitat available, and that is unacceptable to some people.” The problem is that healthy ecosystems need top predators, Laundré said, and occasional hunting is a poor substitute for the kind of constant predation that lions provide. Without them, sheep lose their fear. “Instead of using the habitat the way they were meant to, they just go anywhere anytime they want to find their preferred foods,” he said. The scientific literature is replete with examples of ecosystem collapse caused by excessive numbers of free-roaming prey species, Laundré said. “You’d think we would have learned our lesson by now.”
In early February, Texas Bighorn Society vice president Jack Bauer took out a map of the Trans-Pecos and showed me the group’s fifty-year plan. Bauer is the former director of Parks and Wildlife’s land conservation program, and he first came across the TBS at the end of his tenure, when he was trying to raise private donations to buy land for the Black Gap WMA. The targeted reintroduction area on Bauer’s map was represented by a three-hundred-mile swath of red that ran between the Rio Grande and the Pecos River and from Black Gap all the way to El Paso, encompassing nearly every mountain range in Texas.
The dream doesn’t stop at the Rio Grande, Bauer explained. He showed me his proudest accomplishment: a memorandum of agreement, executed in 2010, with a Mexican cement company called Cemex, which owns enormous tracts of prime bighorn habitat south of the river. Signed by Parks and Wildlife, the TBS, Cemex, and the Wyoming-based Wild Sheep Foundation, the agreement calls for the coordination of sheep reintroduction on both sides of the border and commits to continued predator control in the Big Bend region for the next ten years.
“It’s not just about the sheep,” Bauer told me. Managing for bighorns also means preserving habitat for black bears, quail, mule deer, and pronghorns. It means removing livestock and livestock fences and restoring desert grasslands. It is an intoxicating vision for conservationists and wildlife enthusiasts of all stripes, a vision of the Trans-Pecos as it was before the cattlemen arrived. Both Smith and Bauer spoke of a restored ecosystem, but the TBS’s vision for the region is not that exactly. If that were the goal, there would have to be a place for predators—not only mountain lions but also wolves, which were extirpated from the region by our ancestors. When I asked Bauer about these animals, which have been reintroduced on national forest lands in Arizona and New Mexico, his expression grew grave. “There you are talking about forcing something on a landowner,” he said. Wolves, like lions, are bad for livestock and game, which is to say, they are bad politics. “I think there the question would be,” Bauer continued,“ ‘What is the value to me?’ ”