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Bighorn sheep return to historic New Mexico range along Rio Grande Gorge

ALONG THE RIO GRANDE GORGE, N.M. — For the hunters and gatherers who called northern New Mexico home in prehistoric times, seeing Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep roam from the state's highest peaks down the 800-foot basalt cliffs that form the Rio Grande Gorge was part of life.

Petroglyphs chiseled into boulders up and down the river depict big-horned mammals, but it was long ago that the majestic animals disappeared from the area.

State and federal wildlife managers have been working years on the prospect of reintroducing the past, and they took a major step over the weekend as they lifted the latch on a livestock trailer and a group of bighorn sheep — after bit of hesitation — thundered out, scrambling one after the other up the rocks.

"They belong here. They're part of the diversity," Sam DesGeorges, head of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's field office in Taos, said after Saturday's release. "Having the habitat and the animals that occupy that habitat is very important biologically."

The work continued Monday as Elise Goldstein, a bighorn sheep biologist with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, set up radio frequencies so the animals could be tracked and their progress monitored.

"It's exciting," she said of the restoration efforts. "It's really nice to be a part of something where the populations are doing well."

Millions of Rocky Mountain bighorns once roamed the West, but the fragile species quickly fell to frontier hunting and diseases introduced by domestic sheep. Today's bighorn populations either represent remnant herds or grew from reintroductions aimed at returning the bighorn sheep to their native range.

New Mexico has about 1,000 Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, including herds in the Pecos, Wheeler and Latir Wilderness areas in the north, the Manzano Mountains southeast of Albuquerque and two areas in the Gila National Forest in the south.

Crews with the state Department of Game and Fish, the U.S. Forest Service and Taos Pueblo used drop nets baited with salt blocks to capture 25 sheep in the Pecos Wilderness early Saturday.

The animals were examined, given shots, outfitted with radio collars and trucked to the release site along the gorge just south of Taos. It marked the first time Rocky Mountain bighorn have been released on land managed by the BLM.

The sheep were let go midway along the 82-mile gorge, a sliver carved into layers of basalt by the Rio Grande, the nation's third-longest river.

DesGeorges said the goal is for the transplants to augment a herd released on Taos Pueblo land last year. That group — 23 sheep plus a dozen lambs from the spring — has been moving between pueblo land and BLM land along the gorge.

DesGeorges first started working on the prospect of reintroducing sheep to the gorge 15 years ago as a biologist with the field office.

"To see some of the dreams and visions starting to come true, that's very fulfilling," he said.

Early efforts involved surveying the rugged area and making sure it would be suitable for Rocky Mountain bighorn.

The gorge has unlimited rock outcroppings where sheep can keep an eye out for those predators that dare to navigate the steep cliffs. It also has water and enough native grub to sustain a sizable herd.

Pam Herrera Olivas, a BLM wildlife biologist, pointed to the lambs born to the group released on pueblo land last year.

"That's a good indication of the habitat quality," she said.

Michael A. Martinez, who works for Taos Pueblo's natural resources division, said the division's bighorn sheep management program is relatively new but it's important to the tribe.

"Not only for future generations, but for everyone," he said.

The tribe's connection to the animal goes way back — puebloan ancestors settled in the area more than 1,000 years ago — and the native Tiwa language includes a word for the mountain sheep, Martinez said.

DesGeorges said bighorn sheep are "part of that whole mix, that whole web of life coming together." That web includes mountain lions, mule deer, eagles, falcons and the other wildlife that have made a home in the gorge.

Sheep restoration began in New Mexico in 1932 with the failed transplant of six bighorns in the Pecos Wilderness. Ten years later, bighorns were released into the Sandia Mountains just east of Albuquerque and thrived for some time.

Sheep from the Sandias were subsequently reintroduced in the Pecos in 1965. Wheeler Peak, northeast of Taos, and the other areas were repopulated years later with sheep from Pecos.

During the recent trap, 34 sheep were also sent to the Dry Cimarron River area in northeastern New Mexico to bolster a small herd there.

Martinez, who helped load some of the sheep before their journey to the gorge, said many agencies and volunteers worked together to make the release possible.

"It's hard work but it all pays off in the end," he said.

The sheep were released just as the clouds overhead began to rumble, a signal of afternoon rain. DesGeorges looked up at the rim of the gorge and watched a pair of sheep silhouetted against the brewing storm.

"It's neat," he said. "It completes one part of a really big puzzle just to have this happen."

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