I stood motionless, afraid to even blink let alone breathe. His bulbous eye focused on the off-colored rock sitting before him. His 220-pound frame was sleek and well-defined but nothing compared to what it would be in a few months when he bulked up to begin defending his right to breed. The Rocky Mountain bighorn ram standing before me was already a fine specimen, he was soon going to be a fierce competitor as well. Imagining the thunderous clap resounding from his mighty horns as he beat down his rivals, I had little doubt he would maintain his bloodline this coming breeding season.
So went my first encounter with New Mexico’s largest wild sheep. You can imagine my surprise as I learned about this majestic animal and its struggle to maintain a foothold in the rocky and wild places it calls home. As an invited member to a bighorn sheep management meeting, my first priority was to gather as much information about the animal as possible. As a wildlife biologist, I have managed numerous species of big game animals, but this was going to be my first foray with bighorns, therefore, I was quite content letting the experts lead the discussion.
Much to my surprise I learned that bighorn sheep were a staple in the diet of prehistoric peoples along sections of the Rio Grande gorge in Northern New Mexico. In fact, archaeological records indicate it was the second most hunted large animal behind only mule deer. Not anymore.
As recently as the early 1900s, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep were completely extirpated from the state of New Mexico. Though they have made notable comebacks in certain areas, they are currently absent from almost half of their historic range. Not familiar with their history, I was eager to learn more and it didn’t take long before the conversation shifted to discussing the greatest threats to bighorns.
One of the sheep’s biggest struggle continues to be altered and fragmented habitats that leave their populations isolated and prone to catastrophic events. High on their list of worries is being decimated by diseases that are not naturally known to their populations. Respiratory diseases, especially Pneumonia, are associated with most bighorn die-offs. The pneumonia causing bacteria most detrimental to them is an old-world strain in which the sheep have no natural defense, much like the diseases introduced to the New World centuries ago. Unfortunately the end result is usually widespread die-off.
This tragic event usually occurs when wild sheep come in contact with domestic sheep or goats. All it takes is for one stray lovesick wild ram to come in contact with an infected domestic animal. When contact or even close proximity occurs, he can pick up the bacteria that is foreign and fatal to his system. If he then returns to the wild herd the entire flock can become infected and it usually spells disaster for the whole population. Although it may not kill every animal, it may drop their numbers to a point in which they rarely recover since it causes high mortality in new-born lambs. Sadly, it has happened all over the west and continues to this day.
I was relieved to hear however, that there is hope. Thanks to the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish some newly established bighorn populations are gaining a foothold in areas that have been void of sheep for generations. Cochiti Canyon on the Santa Fe National Forest is one such place where the mighty rams once again roam. The recent fires from Las Conchas have left a smorgasbord of food for the sheep while the sheer walls of the canyon provide escape cover for the sure-footed animals. The nearby Dome wilderness also provides sanctuary for the animals should they seek additional solitude and lest we forget Bandelier National Monument which readily awaits the return of the majestic bighorn. Not surprisingly, a few stray animals having been recently spotted within the Monument.
These re-established populations however are still at risk. Feral goats and sheep sometimes wander the forest. One chance encounter with them could be disastrous to the entire wild herd. We need people to be vigilant. We need them to make sure their animals do not escape and to report any sightings of feral goats and sheep anywhere on the Jemez or Española districts of Santa Fe National Forest. The sheeps’ existence on the forest depends on it. Without the help of the citizens of New Mexico and those that love all things wild, the thunderous clap of bighorn rams declaring their dominance may never again be heard by future generations. I for one, want my child to see and hear this magnificent animal.
Please call New Mexico Department of Game and Fish at (888) 248-6866 to report feral domestic sheep or goats on the Santa Fe National Forest or to report bighorn sheep mingling with domestic animals.
Daryl Ratajczak is a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service and currently serving on a multi-agency Bighorn Sheep Working Group. Their mission is to help restore bighorns to their historic range within the Jemez Mountains and surrounding areas. This article was a drafted at the request of the working group.