Two hundred years ago the bighorn sheep population in the U.S., Canada and northern Mexico was estimated at more than 2 million.
By the 1920s, they had been killed off in six Western states. Biologists estimate that today only about 70,000 bighorns are left in the world.
Bighorn restoration in New Mexico began in the 1930s, and by 2007 the population had grown to about 970. This high rate of success was a joint effort between Taos Pueblo and the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish.
The sheep were airlifted in by helicopter, weighed, given shots and tracking collars. Viewing bighorns at the Gorge Bridge and in Pilar has become a valued tourist attraction; traffic in Pilar backs up as excited visitors spill out of their cars to snap photos.
On a lone hike near Pilar, I once found myself surrounded by a small herd of bighorns, the rams blocking my path, nibbling on sagebrush, the sleepy ewes and their kids napping on rocks above me. I was so enchanted I took photo after photo, then sat down and ate lunch with them. But I was also worried about how tame they were. For good reason.
To me it's a shame that after all that caring and expense, the endangered bighorns have become a product the state can cash in on by issuing expensive "hunting" licenses. Don't get me wrong, I'm not against hunting.
I shot a rabbit once and ate it, too. But it was on the run, not just standing there staring at me shyly like the gentle ewe. Where's the courage, skill, and glory in shooting a bighorn? What twisted logic says we should kill an endangered species in order to protect it?
Surely, with our high level of intelligence we can come up with better alternatives that encourage proliferation instead of extinction?
Phaedra Greenwood is a free lance author, naturalist and photographer who lives in Arroyo Hondo.