By Darrell Arnold
HUERFANO- There are an estimated 400 to 450 Bighorn Sheep in Huerfano County right now, and almost all of them are here thanks to the efforts of La Veta’s recently retired Wildlife Conservation Officer Lonnie Brown. Further, indirectly as a result of Brown’s efforts, Huerfano County has become Colorado’s hotspot for trophy Bighorn Sheep hunters.
Brown says, "The two units near La Veta have become the most sought after Bighorn Sheep licenses in Colorado." The reason is that in the last 25 years, more record-book sized rams have been taken in Huerfano County than anywhere else.
"The Mt. Mestas herd has been the source of 10 or 12 that are in the book, and there have been three from the Trinchera herd that have been even bigger," explains Brown.
Brown came to Huerfano County in the fall of 1975, and he was part of the first transplant when the Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW) released a band of Bighorns on Apache Creek on the southern flanks of Greenhorn Mountain in 1976.
Brown says, "There were hardly any bighorns in the county when I got here. I had heard reports of Bighorns on the upper Huerfano River, and I did find a ewe skull in there, but I never saw one."
He continues, "In the spring of 1976, Don Musso (the La Veta-based Forest Ranger) and I made a winter flight around the West Peak looking for release sites, but we didn’t get sheep there until ‘85."
Brown recalls, "Sometime around 1981, one of the rams came down off of the Greenhorn and started living in the Black Hills (Major Ranch area) by himself. He got to seriously harassing cattle, actually claiming heifers like a harem and trying to breed them. We released two ewes there in the Black Hills, and they went up on Silver Mountain and the ram went with them. The next ones were released on Mt. Mestas in ‘82 or ‘83."
In 1985, Brown and the DOW released 22 Bighorns just south of the Devil’s Stair Steps, on the lower slopes of the West Spanish Peak, six miles south of La Veta.
He continues "They didn’t stay there very well," Brown remembers. "Some went to White Creek and up on the White Peaks, and the others stayed on the West Peak for a few months before moving to the Black Hills, north of La Veta (between Highway 160 and Highway 69).
"After two years, the Mt. Mestas sheep moved out to the Black Hills, too, and in ‘86 or ‘87, one of the Bighorn rams that Forbes Ranch had transplanted from Canada to the west side of Trinchera Peak went out to the Black Hills, too.
"Then," says Brown, "there was a transplant made to the Spanish Peaks Wildlife area, northeast of Trinidad. Two of those ewes also migrated to the Black Hills. Unbelievably, we had sheep from five different trap sites that converged in the Black Hills. That herd has an incredibly diverse gene pool, but we still do not know how those sheep from all those areas ended up finding each other in the Black Hills."