Search for rare animal seen in New Mexico ends with shocking find — in cougar’s belly

NM Game and Fish photo

A mystery has been solved in the mountains of New Mexico — and the resolution appears to have been bloody and a little ironic.

Wildlife experts searched nearly two years for a phantom-like Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep seen wandering far outside its natural range on Cookes Peak, 230 miles southwest of Albuquerque.

“It disappeared. And has not been seen since,” New Mexico Game and Fish posted Dec. 14 on Facebook.

“Well, until staff at White Sands Missile Range began looking at trail camera footage from May of 2020,” the post continued. “The trail camera captured these amazing photos of a cougar stalking and killing a bighorn sheep.”

Only on closer inspection did biologists realize the sheep looked strangely familiar.

It turned out to be the phantom sheep they had been searching for since 2019, officials said.

Photos shared on Facebook show the tense moments just before the kill, when the cougar was crouching behind the sheep. Another photo shows the predator’s claws around the sheep’s neck.

“What do you think is the most unique; this bighorn sheep traveling over 180 miles by itself ... or a White Sands Missile Range trail camera capturing its battle with a cougar?” state officials asked.

“Game and Fish biologists used the ear tag to track the bighorn back to Arizona Game and Fish and its last known location near the Morenci Mine (in western Arizona),” they wrote. “This bighorn had made a trek over 180 air miles to meet its demise on White Sands Missile Range.”

Cookes Peak in southwest New Mexico “does not have Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, but nearby ranges have Desert bighorn sheep,” the state noted.

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