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.
Illustration by Hugh Syme

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

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