The decision comes after a 30-year recovery effort that started slow, gained momentum and ultimately increased the number of bighorn sheep in New Mexico from fewer than 50 to more than 600, said Elise Goldstein, a biologist for the New Mexico Game and Fish Department.
It was the first time the department removed an animal from the endangered species list because of a recovery program.
Desert bighorn sheep will remain a protected animal, and the game and fish department will continue to try to grow the bighorn sheep population in the state, Goldstein said.
The subspecies of desert bighorn sheep found in New Mexico also are found in Arizona and Mexico. There are about 4,000 to 5,000 bighorn sheep in Arizona. Goldstein said it is possible for New Mexico mountain ranges to support that large of a population.
"I think we easily could support that number," she said. "We're just not there yet."
Bighorn sheep once roamed 14 mountain ranges in the central and southern portions of the state. There was rapid die-off in the 1800s while western states were being settled, according to game and fish reports.
Bighorn sheep "are very sensitive," Goldstein said. "They can adapt to some things and there are certain things they can't adapt to."
The recovery program was slow to develop but became
At one point, there were 50 bighorn sheep in the state. The game and fish department released 249 from Mexico and Arizona, and when they next counted there were 150 bighorn sheep alive in the state, Goldstein said.
"They were dying faster than we could put them out," she said.
The problem was mountain lions, Goldstein said. Biologists estimate that in the 1980s and '90s, 85 percent of the bighorn sheep that died in New Mexico were killed by cougars.
"It was the ability of the agency to take a step back and do the research necessary to understand what was holding the bighorn sheep back," said Jim Lane, the chief of the Department of Game and Fish Wildlife Division. "It was not so much habitat as it was predation. Cougars were taking a substantial toll on the population."
The cougar control program in desert bighorn sheep habitat reduced the number of bighorn sheep killed by lions by more than 70 percent, Goldstein said.
Game and fish officials also credited the success of the recovery program to a small, exclusive group of sportsmen.
In the past 10 years, the department raised $2.8 million for the sheep management program by auctioning and raffling off two bighorn sheep hunting licenses. One of the licenses was for a rocky mountain bighorn sheep and one was for a desert bighorn, said Patrick Block, the assistant director of support services programs for the department.
Additionally, there was one public desert bighorn sheep license each year, so the total killed for sport each year was two or less, Goldstein said.
The licenses sold at auction for $75,000 to $250,000, Goldstein said.
Desert bighorn sheep are the only big game animal on the state's endangered species list, and possibly the most charismatic, Lane said.
"I think bighorn sheep are considered the Mercedes Benz of hunting," Goldstein said. "Because they are rare, they are coveted and people are willing to pay very high dollars because of that."
The game commission likely will consider granting more hunting licenses now that bighorn sheep are not close to extinction, Lane said. Though the number of licenses is yet to be determined, he said it could be around 12 per year.
"The restoration effort would not have been possible without sportsmen," Lane said. Bighorn sheep tags "draw an international crowd because we have some of the largest desert bighorn sheep in the world in New Mexico."