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 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

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