RED ROCK WILDLIFE AREA – It doesn’t take long to understand why this facility in Hidalgo County, 26 miles north of Lordsburg, is perfect for desert bighorn sheep.
For the most part, the rugged foothills here, just west of the Gila River, go in one of two directions – up or down. Looking at a summit from a wash at the base of these red-and-gray walls of rock, you would figure only a bighorn sheep or something with wings could scale them. This is the kind of country that could break your heart as quickly as it could break your leg.
And yet, at 7:30 a.m. May 13, eight men – Game and Fish Department employees and several volunteers – spread out along this 2-square-mile fenced-in compound and started walking. They zigzagged down into canyons and scrambled up the opposite walls as they took park in Red Rock’s 19th annual desert bighorn sheep census.
Spread over distances ranging from 50 to 100 yards and struggling to maintain some semblance of a line as they negotiated the difficult terrain, the walkers drove rams, ewes and lambs toward pens where they could be counted and their health evaluated.
When sheep balked at a pen and spun around to race back through the loosely linked human chain – as 38 did on the very first pen – the men tried as best they could to count and identify the bighorns as they blurred by. How many ewes, how many rams, how many lambs?
When the count ended, roughly five hours and five miles after it started, Eric Rominger, Game and Fish Department bighorn sheep biologist, marked it a success.
“Nobody got hurt, nobody got snake bit and no one got gila monstered,” he said. “And it wasn’t too hot.”
Rominger said the count went pretty well, too.
“I think we got close to what we were expecting,” he said. “We were expecting 60 adults plus this year’s lamb count. We saw 56 adults plus 13 lambs.”
Rominger said he would have been happier with 15 to 20 lambs.
“Last year, we had 19,” he said. “But there still might be some lambs born this year.”
Red Rock, a Game and Fish Department refuge established in 1972, is at the heart of New Mexico’s successful desert bighorn sheep program.
Every other year, sheep from here are removed and used to augment herds of the animals in the Ladron, Fra Cristobal, Caballo, San Andres, Peloncillo and Hatchet mountains.
Twenty-six sheep – 18 rams and eight ewes – were transferred last year from Red Rock to the Big Hatchet Mountains, and a number to be determined will be moved next year.
Since the Red Rock transfers started in 1979, 439 desert bighorn sheep have been put into other New Mexico herds. As a result, the population in the recipient mountain ranges has gone from 170 in 2001 to about 1,000 today.
The species was removed from the state endangered list in 2011, and this year the Game and Fish Department offered 21 public desert bighorn hunting licenses in the big-game draw. Prior to 2012, no desert bighorn hunting licenses were offered in the public draw.
Rominger said the key to expanding a herd is to have at least 45 ewes in the population.
“In the Fra Cristobals, when we got 45 ewes, we quickly got up to about 400 sheep,” he said. “We went from 90 to 180 in three years and from 180 to 360 in the next three years.”
Despite the May 13 count, Rominger is not sure how many ewes are at Red Rock.
“Twenty-five to 30,” he said. “I’m not real comfortable with the classification. We have 13 unclassified sheep.”
That’s because when those sheep come back like a blur of horns and hooves through the line of walkers, it’s not always easy to tell what’s a ram and what’s a ewe.
Steak, beans and gila monsters
There was no mistaking the gender of the nine desert bighorn rams, several sporting impressive full-curl horns, that walked single file up a steep hillside as the first vehicles of the census crew pulled into the Ash Creek campsite at Red Rock on the afternoon of May 12.
In anticipation of the light rain that would recur during brief periods that evening, tents were pitched. Steve C. and Steve F. Harvill, the father-and-son team that manages the day-to-day operations at Red Rock, set up to cook a steak and beans dinner beneath an Emory oak and several desert hackberry trees.
As the sun dropped and a stunted rainbow and pink-stained clouds appeared in the eastern sky, a black and orange gila monster lumbered across the nearby dirt road and into the brush in search of a supper of young rabbits.
Most of the group assembled for the count were employed by or associated with the Game and Fish Department, but three – Chaz Moxley, Brandon Wynn and Hunter Krenz – are Albuquerque men who volunteered for the census because of their love of wildlife and the outdoors.
Moxley, 46, a zookeeper at Albuquerque’s Rio Grande Zoological Park, worked the 2014 census and was back for another go at it.
Wynn, 54, who owns an office coffee service, and Krenz, 48, a painting contractor who also buys, renovates and sells houses, were rookies eager for the experience. Wynn and Krenz are avid hunters who have stalked game in Africa as well as in this country.
“I’ve done a fair amount of volunteer work with habitat improvement,” Wynn said. “Hunting is my life, and I like to give back.”
Hunting tags for bighorn sheep are tough to come by. Wynn has never drawn one, although he and Krenz apply for bighorn tags in almost every Western state every year. But Wynn is so fascinated by bighorns, he could not pass up the chance to work the census.
“I had tried to volunteer a number of times, but they usually have more people than they need,” he said. “This time Hunter and I called at the right time. I love being around sheep and seeing them. They are the wildest of the wild.”
Fueled by hunting and adventure stories he read when he was young, Krenz said he has been enamored of bighorn sheep all his life. He drew a tag for a Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep in Colorado in 2010 and took one.
“That was probably the only time in my life to hunt sheep,” he said. “But I had no idea they had something like this we could participate in. I’ve been fond of sheep for so long that this is a highlight for me.”
Moxley, a rhino specialist at the Albuquerque zoo, enjoys the variety of wildlife the sheep-counting experiences open up to him.
“It’s always good to see other wildlife besides the sheep,” he said. “Like that gila monster.”
Rough and rocky
The clouds of the previous evening gave way to blue skies on the day of the count, but the scattered showers during the night made for cooler temperatures. The weather was perfect for the count, but nothing could make the terrain easier.
“It’s really steep and rocky, lot of loose rock,” Wynn said.
Reaching out to grab something to steady an ascent is risky because you might come up with a handful of cholla, ocotillo or prickly pear cactus. But sliding into prickly pear is not a good option.
“It’s definitely country to a sheep’s liking,” Krenz said.
Both men saw sheep during the drive.
“At the end of the day, we had nine rams squeezed down in the corner of the fence so the biologist could count them,” Wynn said. “They ran by just in front of us, about 100 yards. It was the coolest thing.”
After the count, Wynn, Krenz and Moxley stayed on to help with repairs to the 8-foot-high Red Rock fence intended to keep cougars from digging under it or deer from jumping over it.
“My time and effort is well spent,” Krenz said. “Just being there and being able to be around the sheep and help out a little is as good as a hunt.”