Most of Big Bend Ranch State Park closed through the weekend for bighorn survey

SOUTH PRESIDIO COUNTY — The majority of Big Bend State Ranch’s 311,000 acres will be closed through Saturday, October 28, for a Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPWD) aoudad survey. During the survey, agency experts will count native desert bighorn sheep and cull non-native aoudads “via lethal means,” reads a park press release.

The rocky, mountainous terrain across the Big Bend’s public lands has long been the home of bighorn sheep. Over the past century, the native sheep have been pushed out by aoudad — or barbary sheep — a species introduced by private collectors and zoos and later released into the wild in the 1950s.

Aoudads compete with desert bighorns for resources, and their high numbers can negatively impact desert ecosystems and sensitive geological and archaeological sites. Though the primary goal of the bighorn surveys are to count and classify herds of native animals, overpopulated aoudad will be culled by TPWD staff.

This year’s survey was announced just two weeks in advance, causing headaches for some park staff and campers with advanced reservations. Big Bend Ranch State Park’s River Corridor Superintendent Laura Jennings explained that folks with reservations in the interior were given notice a week before the general public so that they could rearrange their plans.

An official announcement about the survey — and subsequent park closures — was announced on October 11. Jennings said that the gap between the notifications was due to the fact that this year’s survey required adjusting and redrawing maps recycled from past surveys. “It’s not the standard aerial survey that we’ve seen in the past,” she said. “There were a lot of moving parts.”

Lerrin Johnson, spokesperson for the wildlife division of TPWD, explained that the short notice was not intentional — the surveys sometimes had to be adjusted on-the-fly in order to accommodate environmental conditions and mechanical issues. “Though we try to keep these adjustments to a minimum, they are often a result of issues out of our control,” he said.

The survey will start with the river corridor and will be conducted counter-clockwise throughout the interior of the park. Campground reservations and commercial river trips will not be affected, though most park trails will be temporarily shut down — including Closed Canyon, perhaps the most popular hike in the park. “We’ve never closed Closed Canyon before,” Jennings said.

Though park staff had encountered some unhappy campers, the closures provide an opportunity for education about local ecosystems and a wide range of TPWD operations. “It’s always disappointing when you hear about a closure in a park like Big Bend because it takes a lot of time and planning to even get here,” Jennings said. “Once the initial disappointment is surmounted, we’re able to explain ‘the why’ and [park guests] see it’s for a good cause.”

“There will be no access to Closed Canyon Trail on Thursday, October 26. The vast majority of the park interior will remain closed through Saturday, October 28. Barton Warnock and Fort Leaton Visitor Centers will remain open, as will the Hoodoos Trail and the Contrabando Trail System. Park operations will resume as normal on Sunday, October 29.”