Far West Texas is best described as being a whole other country.
The far-flung, rough-as-a-cob terrain made famous in the Oscar-winning “No Country For Old Men” is unforgiving to say the least.
However, if you’re looking for the hunt of a lifetime — one that certainly would include scenic views unlike any other in our great state — then this is the country for you.
The Trans-Pecos region does offer some exceptional drawn public hunting opportunities for a number of species, most notably desert mule deer, and to a lesser extent whitetails. The region also offers the crown jewel of the public hunting draw process – a shot at a desert bighorn ram.
Here’s a look at the top public hunting options on Wildlife Management Areas in the Trans-Pecos.
At more than 100,000 acres, Black Gap is the largest Wildlife Management Area in the state, harboring hundreds of species of birds, dozens of species of mammals and a dizzying and prickly array of native flora. The WMA in Brewster County – the largest county in the state – borders sprawling Big Bend National Park and also shares a border with the Mexican State of Coahuila and 25 miles of the Rio Grande.
Black Gap was established in 1948 when the Texas Game, Fish, and Oyster Commission – predecessor to what is known today as the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department – orchestrated the purchase of more than 50,000 acres from Combs Cattle Company.
Black Gap – located in some of the lowest elevations of the Chihuahuan Desert found in the United States – is part of valuable, ongoing research conducted by TPWD, as with other WMAs found across the state. One key facet of that research surrounds a pair of sought-after big-game species. Between 1949 and 1951, 300 mule deer were trapped near Sanderson and released onto Black Gap to supplement the native deer population, according to TPWD records. The deer population had reached about 900 in 1955, when the first public deer hunt was opened. The decision was made in 1963 to test the deer population to “severe” hunting pressure. Research on the seasonal movement of mule deer was conducted on the property between 1957 and 1963. Future studies took place to observe the rate of use of artificial water sites by the deer. The information attained was instrumental to determining future mule deer management practices on private and public lands in the Trans-Pecos, according to TPWD.
Black Gap also is home to groundbreaking research on the desert bighorn sheep. During the early years of the 20th Century, bighorns were hunted for their meat and to reduce the competition with domestic sheep, according to TPWD. It was soon observed that bighonr numbers were radically decreasing and in 1903 the state outlawed the hunting and killing of the bighorn. By 1941, the estimated numbers were approximately 150 for the entire state, according to TPWD records.
In the 1950s reintroduction efforts commenced with the trapping of sheep in other western states which were then brought to Black Gap. Later efforts also included the transplantation of bighorns from Elephant Mountain WMA. Today, the bighorn population is doing well, with animals expanding their range onto surrounding private tracts, as well as into Mexico and Big Bend National Park.
Mark Garrett, Trans-Pecos WMA Project Leader for TPWD, said that bighorn restoration efforts in Texas have included a number of valuable partners and assisting agencies. According to the most recent estimates, all that work has paid off with a thriving population, compared with the figure that once was critically low.
“Our overall sheep numbers are going good at the moment. We’ve got about 1,500 bighorn statewide right now,” Garrett said. “Our restoration efforts have been invaluable in providing the hunting opportunity that now exists for bighorn through our public hunt drawing.”
The public hunt drawing conducted annually by TPWD for a guided bighorn hunting package may be the best deal in this lifetime, and certainly is the hunt of a lifetime for the winner.
“It’s a $10 application fee and that’s good for one person per year. There are no fees associated with that hunt outside of the $10 entry fee. If you win that package, it includes the fully-guided hunt and all associated transportation, meals and lodging,” Garrett said.
Garrett, who assisted as a guide for an Idaho hunter on this year’s bighorn hunt in late March, knows just how special the hunt can be.
“He took an 11-year-old, 172 (Boone & Crockett book ram). It was a great hunt. That was the perfect animal at that age,” Garrett said. “You’re looking at about 12 years for their lifespan in the wild, so it was a great animal to take. The TPWD biologist on site usually takes the lead on guiding and it’s a team effort to ensure the success of our hunter.”
The drawn bighorn hunt – open only to those 17 and older and which featured more than 5,000 entries last year – is conducted at Black Gap, Elephant Mountain or Sierra Diablo WMA, depending on the availability of a huntable animal, Garrett noted. The process in finding an older ram has numerous steps and considerations that go into it, he said.
“We’ll issue a permit for a bighorn ram based on our aerial surveys. We’ll fly over our sheep habitat across the state and attempt to find a ram in an acceptable age class for harvest,” Garrett said. “Then we’ll issue a permit for harvest on that property. It can vary based on our sheep populations. We may have one at Black Gap. We may have one at Elephant and Diablo. The numbers are growing and that could increase as well – the number of permits open to the public.”
In addition to the public drawing, the Big Time Texas Hunts program also offers a chance at a bighorn through the Texas Grand Slam package. That lineup of hunts also includes the pursuit of a desert mule deer, white-tailed deer and pronghorn antelope to the drawing’s winner.
“Those are the only two that you’re going to purchase an opportunity for,” Garrett said. “The Big Time Texas Hunts Grand Slam is a $10 entry fee and you can buy as many tickets as you want. That’s multi-species, with taxidermy included.”
Garrett also noted that another bighorn ram permit goes to a conservation partner that is auctioned off each year. The most recent recipient was the Houston Safari Club, which auctioned off the bighorn ram permit for $120,000 at its 2017 convention. When it was all said and done, the Houston Safari Club presented a check for the proceeds ($108,000) back to the TPWD Commission for the benefit of our state’s bighorn sheep program.
Elephant Mountain, located about 25 miles south of Alpine, is composed of more than 23,000 acres of Trans-Pecos territory that holds a variety of game. The WMA was acquired through private donation in 1985 for the purpose of conservation and development of desert bighorn and large game animals, wildlife-oriented research, and other compatible recreational uses including public hunting, according to TPWD.
The most prominent feature of the area is Elephant Mountain (6,225 feet above sea level) which extends from the northern to southern property boundaries. The large flat-topped mountain of igneous origin rises nearly 2,000 feet above the surrounding table land. The top of the mountain covers over 2,200 acres and is not open to the public to prevent disturbance to the localized desert bighorn herd, according to TPWD.
Garrett noted that as with bighorn permits, the number of animals included in a quota available to public hunters is based on real-time data.
“What we offer up to the public for hunting opportunities (at Black Gap, Elephant Mountain and Sierra Diablo) is going to be based on the previous year’s census. Every year we’re going to have archery mule deer and gun mule deer draws. And on those mule deer hunts, that’s either one mule deer or one white-tailed deer. Specifically, you’re going to come across whitetails in the lower elevation regions at Elephant Mountain,” Garrett said. “We’ve also got a youth management hunt that we started three years ago, which is a guided youth mule deer management hunt.”
In addition to the big game opportunities at Black Gap and Elephant Mountain, there also are public draw hunts for javelinas in each area. Garrett also said that the Annual Public Hunting Permit ($48) opens up a huge amount of territory to hunters, including some excellent blue quail country.
“Black Gap and Elephant Mountain are both open for walk-in hunting with the Annual Public Hunting Permit. You just self-register and then you’ve got approximately 24,000 acres at Elephant Mountain and approximately 103,000 acres at Black Gap to hunt. We’ve had good rains the last two years and had really good quail crops, both this year and last year,” Garrett said.
Hunters are required to deposit one wing from each dove, quail or teal harvested in a registration station before exiting the WMAs, according to TPWD regulations.
Named for and located in the mountain range extending north and south along the Hudspeth and Culberson county line, Sierra Diablo is another public hunting option, specifically for desert mule deer.
At roughly 11,000 acres, Sierra Diablo is smaller than the other two Trans-Pecos WMAs, but actually is home to the largest free-ranging population of bighorn sheep in Texas. Sierra Diablo differs slightly from the other two in that it’s surrounded by private lands and as such there are no standby hunts there. Drawn hunters must meet area staff at a designated location the first day of their hunt period with travel to and from the WMA by permitted hunters accomplished as a group, according to TPWD.
Despite that difference, there are excellent archery and gun mule deer public hunt opportunities, in addition to youth-only deer hunts.
“The cool part about the youth hunts is they’re free to apply and there’s no hunt fee associated with them at all. It’s completely free,” Garrett said. “That’s just one important feature of our public hunting program. Statewide, you’ve got over a million acres open to public hunting, all either owned by Texas Parks & Wildlife or leased by us.”
As with the other rugged WMAs in this part of the state, a four-wheel-drive vehicle is required, as is planning well in advance about what gear you should pack.
Public Hunting Tip
Garrett noted that geography does play a role in some hunters simply not making the trek west. That could be a good thing for other hunters willing to take a chance and make a call.
“It’s not uncommon to have standbys, just based on our geographical location. (Texas’ largest metro areas) are six to eight hours away and then you have folks who put in for the drawn hunts and then they figure out where Black Gap really is,” Garrett said. “I would advise hunters to call the WMAs about two weeks out before a hunt date if they’re not drawn to see if the folks on site are anticipating having any standby openings. On Sierra Diablo we don’t do standbys because it’s surrounded by private lands and there are simply some access issues.”
Black Gap WMA Checklist
The Black Gap Wildlife Management Area headquarters is located about 60 miles south of Marathon, via U.S. 385 and FM 2627. For hunting closure dates and additional information, call 432-376-2216 or 432-837-3251.
- Public access to Black Gap WMA is by permit only. Visitors must have either an annual public hunting permit ($48 per year) or a limited public use permit ($12 per person, age 17 and older). Permits must be obtained in advance of visiting the WMA, and permit holders must register at a self-registration station at WMA headquarters. For permit information and applications, contact TPWD at 800-792-1112.
- Black Gap visitors must bring their own potable water and food, and pack out all trash.
- Visitors venturing into the backcountry on the WMA’s natural surface roads should bring first-aid supplies and a basic car repair kit. Watch for flash flooding during rainy periods.
- The only restroom facility at Black Gap is located at the headquarters campsite.
- All campfires must be in the provided fire rings. Only “dead and down” wood may be collected for firewood.