White Sands Missile Range welcomed two desert bighorn sheep hunters during the 2014 hunting season in December.
The once-in-a-lifetime hunts are difficult and take place in the rugged terrains of the San Andres Refuge’s 57,000 acres and the San Andres mountain range, which extends 75 miles.
“The hunt requires hunters to be in great condition to climb mountains from 2,000 to 3,500 feet in elevation. It requires proper planning and evaluation to make hunts a reality,” said Gilbert Villegas, WSMR contract wildlife biologist.
The sheep are scouted during the year in preparation for the hunts. According to Villegas, hunts can require weeks or months of scouting. Because WSMR is a restricted access Army installation, however, hunters are allowed several days in the fall to come and scout the area and become familiar with the roads and mountain ranges.
To ensure a positive hunting experience on WSMR, this year’s hunters were escorted by Villegas and Chris Meadors, also a contract wildlife biologist.
The first hunter, a teacher from Roswell, was accompanied by family and a friend. She successfully hunted a sheep which was spotted in July by hunt administrators and coined “Jackson”.
According to Villegas, the ram was retrieved after a two-and-a-half hour hike the morning after it was hunted. Measuring about 184 inches, it is considered one of the top 10 rams of all time. Rams generally measure an average of 150-165 inches, according to Villegas.
The bighorn sheep population was once a species of concern in the state of New Mexico. It was added to the New Mexico Threatened and Endangered Species list in 1980 after a scabies outbreak.
After the outbreak, areas on the San Andres Mountains and the San Andres Wildlife Refuge were examined to determine if the scabies disease was found on the land. From 2002 to 2005 the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, WSMR, San Andres Wildlife Refuge, and Arizona Game and Fish helped transplant 81 sheep to build up the population. In November of 2011, the desert bighorn sheep species was removed from the endangered list.
“There was a recovery plan to get a healthy population. The state did a really good job to bring the population back. They went from being endangered to over 600 animals and delisting them,” Villegas said.
Since it was reintroduced, the desert bighorn sheep population at WSMR has grown to about 115.
This year’s hunts were significant not only because they demonstrate that the species continues to thrive, but because for the first time since the species was delisted, both hunting permits were granted to New Mexico residents.