Patrick Morrow, a biologist with the White Sands Missile Range Garrison Environmental Office, center, works with New Mexico Department of Game and Fish staff on a desert bighorn sheep.
White Sands Missile Range with New Mexico Department of Game and Fish conducted a capture operate of desert bighorn sheep and relocated them to the Sacramento Mountains and Lincoln National Forest outside of Alamogordo to reestablish a population there.
Using a specialized helicopter capture team, dozens of desert bighorn sheep, once endangered in the state of New Mexico, were captured, evaluated, documented, and transported across the Tularosa Basin to the neighboring Sacramento Mountains. The sheep were reintroduced to WSMR in the early 2000's in an attempt to rebuild the species presence in the state. The program worked so well that WSMR now has a population of around 300 sheep, enough that some sheep can be transferred elsewhere in the state to rebuild populations there.
"We're able to capture and remove sheep because the population has recovered," Said Patrick Morrow, a biologist with the White Sands Missile Range Garrison Environmental Office. "They are off the state endangered species list, mostly from the efforts of New Mexico Game and Fish, and now our population is estimated between 280 and 300 sheep."
Maintaining healthy populations of bighorn sheep is an important effort for the state of New Mexico, as the sheep represent not only an umbrella species in the desert ecosystem, but also an important game animal, with hunting licenses for desert bighorn sheep often selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars which the state can then use to fund conservation efforts like this.
"It's really the hunter-conservationist that has ponied up the money that allows these programs to exist." said Dr. Eric Rominger, a bighorn sheep biologist with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish.
The capture and relocation effort represents months of planning between state and federal agencies, as well as coordination with the Army so as not to disrupt military testing.
"We understand the Army's mission takes precedence on this missile range, but we're willing to work on the weekends when they don't have mission going and we fly our helicopter surveys on the weekend when they don't have those missions going," Rominger said. "The Army has been an extremely good cooperator through the course of the Sand Andres desert bighorn sheep program."
Desert bighorn sheep once thrived in the state, but were nearly wiped out by disease and hunting into the early 1900's. WSMR, as a secured military test range and host to a wildlife refuge, made for the perfect location to rebuild the population, as poaching would be nearly nonexistent and the range's 2.2 million acres includes miles of habitat area for the sheep.
"You're looking at nearly 80 miles of bighorn sheep habitat and we think it could hold many, many more sheep," Rominger said.
The capture operation took two days, Oct. 27 and 28th, and saw the capture and relocation of 18 ewes and 15 rams. The sheep, now outfitted with tags and GPS and radio tracking collars, will be monitored in their new home outside of Alamogordo to see if the population there establishes and thrives as expected.