There is a stillness just before dawn in the mountains of southeastern New Mexico that sets this Peter Hurd country apart. The winds sleep late. No sound of bird or beast disturbs the quiet. Shadows move through the ends of night, changing shape as they probe still-blackened canyons. Then daylight rushes into the valleys and along the ridges, arriving everywhere at once.
The air in the morning is misleadingly cool, offering no hint of the scorching heat that will come before noon. The wind and weather are master deceivers, altering course as capriciously as the clouds that pattern the sky. In a region where annual rainfall is only 16" and water is more precious than oil, flash floods can turn dry arroyos into sudden rivers. Winds gone abruptly berserk can rip away the land's cover, hurling it into the sky with such violence that it blacks out the sun. Snow or hail can spew suddenly from the skies, punctuating otherwise sun-filled days with exclamation points.
The mountains themselves do not have the stark look of the Tetons, nor the massive stone monuments of the Rockies. Their silhouettes seem almost pastoral, shaped with curves instead of angles—a deceptively gentle scene. And, as is much else in this wild land, its game is unique. Looking closely at the arid, treeless, shale-covered mountaintops, it is not easy to imagine any animal living here. But in this inhospitable terrain the Barbary sheep not only lives but thrives.
The Barbary (Ammotragus lervia) is not a native here, although it might be called a naturalized citizen since the state of New Mexico declared it an official game animal in 1955. Its modern range is the mountainous country of North Africa, but its origins in pre-Pleistocene times reach back to Eurasia. Like the wild sheep (native) of North America, which also emigrated from Eurasia, the Barbary arrived in North Africa during the glacial period.
In the last half of the 19th century, European parks and zoos discovered the aoudad, as the Barbary is also called, and clamored for it because it bred so well in captivity and adapted to varied climates. In December 1900 the first Barbary was shipped from Liverpool to the Jersey City zoo, which neglected lo import a mate for it. Fortunately, both the New York Zoological Park and the National Zoological Park of the Smithsonian Institution were more farsighted, and within five years each had small but prospering herds. Today every sizable zoo in the U.S. has Barbary sheep, virtually all derived from those two original herds.
If the Barbary has done well in captivity, it has done even better in the wild. Peter Hind's longtime friend and neighbor, Joe McKnight, released the first Barbary sheep in New Mexico 30 years ago, establishing the nucleus for what has become one of the most interesting game-animal populations in the Southwest. McKnight was then, and still is, a sheep rancher. Sheep were his heritage and his life. In 1901 his father, Judd, drove 1,100 mortgaged sheep 400 miles from Eldorado, Okla. across the Texas panhandle to the Hondo Valley. Half a century later his ranch, El Chato, could boast 20,000 sheep and 200,000 acres of the "best damn sheep country in the world."
At 91 Judd McKnight is one of the legends of southeastern New Mexico, as tough, determined and visionary as he was 70 years ago when he homesteaded in the shadow of El Capitan. He raised his five children here, in an era of the West when the weak perished and the meek inherited nothing. His second son. Joe, proved neither weak nor meek, and in his day he has become as much a part of the history and character of New Mexico as his father.
Joe's appearance borrows a good deal from the land in which he lives. Sun and wind and six decades on the range have lined his face so that he looks older than he is. His blue eyes are permanently squinted, his chin is invariably stubbled and his dress at all times is a wrinkled cotton coverall. Cowboy boots and a sweat-stained Stetson complete the ensemble.
Joe McKnight's speech and manner, like his dress, are almost stereotype Western. He drops his g's, muddles his tenses, sprinkles his stories with frontier philosophy, all of which might convey a certain cowboy illiteracy. But if one listens closely to the rambling recollections and unending anecdotes, there emerges a sensitive, highly intelligent individualist, a man of enormous self-reliance and wisdom.
In the field, watching Joe repair a windmill, round up stock or stalk a sheep, it is difficult to imagine him in his many other roles—as a Boy Scout regional executive with the Silver Beaver Award, mounted patrol sergeant, two-time Lincoln County commissioner and president of the southeastern New Mexico state library association. But of all his many activities and interests, the one Joe clearly enjoys most is watching Barbary sheep.
"Those sheep have given me more interesting hours in the past 30 years than any animal around," he says. "It's not enough for a man to ranch only for his stomach. He has to ranch for his mind and his soul, too. I used to look at that land out there and think that it was mighty big for just woolly sheep and deer. Used to be wild horses on it, but they were long gone. Seemed as how there was space going to waste. The woolly sheep didn't need it. The deer didn't need it. And a man just needs so much stock and then he doesn't need any more. I figured I'd like to get me some animals for watching."
Joe bought his first Barbaries—a ewe and two rams—in March 1941 from the St. Louis Zoo for $10 each. One of the rams died soon after reaching New Mexico. The others were put in an enclosure on Joe's 11,000-acre ranch at Picacho. That fall Joe added a mature ram and two lambs—a ram and a ewe—from the San Diego Zoo. He expanded the enclosure to 2,000 acres and put in 40 domestic ewes to see if the wild species would breed to them.
"They didn't," Joe says, "but at that time nobody knew what they'd do. I couldn't take a chance on one of those rams getting out of the fence and crossing with the neighbors' stock. Hell, I would have had to buy up all those lambs."
At its peak, Joe's Barbary herd numbered over 300 sheep, prompting members of the New Mexico game department to set up camp on his ranch to study them. By 1950 there was sufficient evidence to convince the game people that they wanted to stock some Barbaries. Joe provided the state with 12 from his herd and he personally hauled another 45 animals from the Hearst ranch in California to the wilderness country of northeastern New Mexico where they were released.
There, only five years later, among 80 miles of gorges and canyons, some more than 1,000 feet deep, in country so rough it can be traversed only on horseback or on foot, the Barbary sheep began the second stage of its history in the wilds of the new world. It became legal quarry, the only imported big-game animal ever to be so designated by a game department in the U.S. Since then Barbary herds from Mc-Knight stock have been established in other parts of New Mexico and in Texas, which has had a legal season on the sheep since 1963.
For many hunters the wild sheep of the world are the ultimate challenge, both because of the terrain in which they are found and because of their extraordinary ability to elude enemies. In such select company, the Barbary can hold its own with any of the wild sheep of this continent. It is so fleet of foot, so acute of eye, so adept at disappearing into the landscape that it can evade virtually all predators except man. And as its burgeoning populations suggest, man has not thus far proved too formidable an enemy.
A big, barrel-bodied sheep, the male grows somewhat larger here than in Africa, averaging 250 pounds and sometimes going over 300. The Barbary has short, stocky legs, stands 36 to 40 inches at the withers and has heavy, muscular shoulders that are taller than its hindquarters. When alarmed it holds its forequarters erect, lowers its head and tucks in its chin, much like a West Point cadet at attention.
The Barbary's heavy, lyre-shaped horns do not grow into a curl as do those of American wild sheep, nor do their tips become broomed or worn down with age. Both sexes have horns, but the male's are longer, heavier and of greater spread. The largest recorded Barbary horns in Africa measured 34 inches in length, 14 inches in circumference at the base and had a maximum spread of 32 inches. Several heads have been taken in New Mexico with horns only fractions smaller, and biologists believe that it is a matter of time before a new world record will come from this side of the ocean.
In addition to a dark-tipped mane that extends from its neck to beyond its withers, the Barbary has an abundance of long, silky hair that grows in profusion from under its chin, across its chest and down its forelegs. The effect is that of a cowboy's chaps. The Barbary's chaps are lighter in color than the rest of its body, which has in New Mexico become a tawny, reddish brown. "Those first sheep were much darker—real chocolate color," Joe recalls. "That's the color they are in Africa. But over the years here, their color has changed, gotten lighter, so now it exactly matches some of our brush. The color blends so perfect with the country that you can look right at one of them sheep and not see it."
Even with good binoculars and infinite patience, it is possible to glass over a group of Barbaries and never see them. A hunter unfamiliar with what he is looking for stands no chance at all, and most hunters remain unfamiliar for quite a while. Here again the New Mexico landscape conspires with the sheep against the sportsman.
The first time I hunted Barbaries with Joe McKnight, it was at least a full day before I was able to put the sheep into proper perspective. Distances were so distorted that instead of looking for midgets among the rocks I was looking for Goliaths. An elephant would have appeared small in that deceptive terrain. The slope across the canyon looked near enough to drive with an eight-iron. When a group of sheep finally appeared on it, I was astounded at how far away they actually were and at how tiny they seemed.
Even when placed in proper scale, the sheep were still tricky to see. One day I watched one lie down alongside an outcropping of rock, and vanish. Another time a ewe and two lambs tiptoed into a scraggly bit of bush that seemed inadequate cover for a field mouse. I could not find them again for more than an hour. Then, apparently alarmed by something, they bounded from the bit of bush and fled over a ridge. On their heels came seven more ewes and lambs. Minutes later two rams emerged from the same bit of noncover.
Several times we spotted rams that from a distance appeared to be trophies. Often such stalks took hours, only to end with the ram long gone. Other times we were luckier. Then, winded and perspiring, we would drop behind a rock and study the head.
"Not bad," Joe would say. "Fellow could do worse than put him on the wall." Shifting into shooting position, I would begin to bolt a cartridge into the chamber of my rifle. "Of course," Joe would add, "he ain't the biggest old boy in these parts." Out would come the cartridge. Crouching down lower in the rocks, we would watch the ram go on its way, mentally cataloging its horns for future reference.
At least five times in that week of daylong climbing we passed up respectable rams for the big one Joe kept talking about. And then, on the last day, we saw it. Joe did not have to tell me that this was the biggest old boy. It crested a ridge on the opposite mountain, a group of smaller rams and ewes behind it. its great horns held high, the shimmering hairs of its chaps so long they almost touched the ground. The rams we had passed up earlier seemed insignificant next to this one. We watched it trot off down the far side of the ridge as grandly as it had first appeared, never close to being in range. But there would be another day, and that old boy and I would meet again.