ALBUQUERQUE New Mexico game commissioners on Thursday removed desert bighorn sheep from the states list of threatened and endangered species, marking a first for the state when it comes to conservation.
With the commissions unanimous vote, state wildlife officials for the first time are able to remove a species from the list because of its recovery. Too often, the list gets longer with those plants and animals that are on the verge of disappearing.
Often when an animal gets on the endangered species list, theyre so far gone, theres not much you can do about it, said Elise Goldstein, a biologist with the New Mexico Game and Fish Department.
She pointed to the success of the desert bighorns recovery as a rare example of what can happen when everything falls into place.
I think a lot of times we do have the science available. We just dont have the political ability to do what needs to be done. This time, we did, Goldstein said.
Department officials credit an aggressive transplant program in which captive-bred desert bighorn have been released in a handful of mountain ranges in central and southern New Mexico.
The other factor has been a mountain lion management program. After putting radio collars on the sheep, biologists were able to determine that 85 percent of the known causes of mortality resulted from lion depredation.
The biologists knew in the 1980s what was causing the problem, but politically, people were not willing to implement cougar control, Goldstein said.
That changed in 2001, when the game commission granted permission for the control program. The department kills an average of about three lions per year per mountain range where the sheep live, and Goldstein said that has reduced predation by more than 70 percent.
Desert bighorn sheep once roamed mountain ranges throughout New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and northern Mexico, but disease, habitat change, predation and other factors left the species in poor shape. By 1940, there were only two populations in New Mexico.
The state put the sheep on its endangered species list in 1980 and started a restoration program. At that time, the population had plummeted to about 50.
Now, there are about 625 desert bighorn in the wild. Theyre spread across six mountain ranges in the southern half of the state.
While Goldstein described Thursday as an exciting day, she said removing the species from the list simply means bighorn sheep are not in danger of becoming extinct in the near future.
Were not saying there are zillions of them and now we can just walk away, she said. To me, getting to the population levels where you can delist them and say theyre no longer imperiled is just a step along the route toward our recovery goals.
The department plans to continue with releases and radio-collar monitoring to ensure desert bighorn populations dont slip. In fact, this week has seen a flurry of captures and relocations to bolster the populations in the Hatchet and Peloncillo mountains in New Mexicos Bootheel.
The delisting would not have been possible without help from sportsmens groups, Arizona wildlife officials and the endangered species fund started by philanthropist and media mogul Ted Turner.
The Fra Cristobal Mountains on Turners Armendaris Ranch in southern New Mexico are home to the most successful herd, which numbers between 200 and 220.
It has taken 16 years of constant monitoring and a careful balance of cougar control to reach those numbers, said Mike Phillips, executive director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund.
While delisting is an obvious measure of success, its not the only measure. Preventing extinction is no small feat either. At the end of the day, thats a pretty good thing, he said.
The Fra Cristobal herd has also spawned a separate herd in the nearby Caballo Mountains, and the state just this month started using its ewes to bolster populations in other mountain ranges.
Much of the recovery work has been funded by sportsmens groups, including the Wild Sheep Foundation. Its annual auction of a bighorn hunting license has raised more than $2 million for the recovery effort since 1990. That money is also matched by federal funds raised through excise taxes on hunting and fishing equipment and boat fuel.
The state also offers a once-in-a-lifetime hunt through the public draw process. The department is considering offering more than a dozen additional licenses now that desert bighorn have been delisted, but Goldstein said that wont happen at least for another year.
While its unclear how many desert bighorn used to roam New Mexico, Goldstein said the potential is enormous with many suitable mountain ranges still unpopulated.
The state can hold thousands of bighorn sheep, many thousands, she said.