Memorial recognizes historic breed

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For Donald A. Chavez, it's been a long, arduous 30 years worth of work coming to fruition at the New Mexico legislative session.

House Memorial 77, sponsored by State Rep. Kelly Fajardo (Belen-7), is recognizing the New Mexico Dahl Hair Sheep as a state heritage breed of livestock, as well as creating a task force appointed to find ways to preserve this breed of sheep facing extinction.

The memorial was approved by the House on a 62-0 vote on March 8.

The memorial sprouted from House Bill 236, which added a section to Chapter 77: Livestock Code stating the New Mexico Dahl Hair Sheep is an official state heritage breed of livestock, that was tabled in the House, Fajardo said.

Upon hearing about this bill, state departments told Fajardo they didn't want to recognize one particular sheep, but loved the idea of recognizing all state heritage breeds and creating an interim committee to aid in their protection, she said.

"It's grown bigger than what we had," Fajardo said. "Now, we have everyone saying, 'Wow. We need to remember who we are as New Mexicans and who we are as a heritage and recognize these creatures who donated to who we are today.'"

The memorial asks the New Mexico Dahl Hair Sheep, which have played an "integral role in the tradition and heritage of New Mexico communities," be recognized as a New Mexico heritage breed.

It asks for the creation of the Heritage Livestock Breeds Task Force, which will study the state's ranching heritage to provide avenues to protect and preserve all state heritage breeds of livestock.

"There's an old saying, 'We don't know who we are until we know where we've been,' and the New Mexico Dahl is a missing part of our history up until now," Chavez said.

The Dahl Sheep were introduced to the United States through New Mexico between 1540 and 1598 by Francisco Vásquez de Coronado and Don Juan de Oñate, which had a hand in the Spanish tradition of ranching.

But with this Spanish colonial heritage hair sheep breed on the brink of extinction, "it is of critical importance to restore the numbers of New Mexico Dahl Hair Sheep and bring their population to levels that ensure the future survival of this heritage breed," the memorial states.

The 62-year-old began breeding these sheep in the late 1980s at Belen's Terra Patre Wildlife Preserve and Teaching Farm after stumbling upon them a decade before.

At that time, Chavez didn't know who they were until after delving into Spanish archives and discovering they were living in the mountains as a feral species with rapidly dwindling numbers.

It's been an uphill struggle for Chavez as he's bred them back to what he thinks they originally resembled and had his sheep stolen yearly out of his pasture, stalling progress in their numbers.

But this memorial will aid in preserving this breed, and other heritage breeds, by educating others about their forgotten roots and placing them in their proper historical place, Chavez said.

"It's going to be a big boost in the effort to save the New Mexico Dahl, and I'm very grateful to Kelly Fajardo and the other sponsors," he said.

In the last two years, the number of breeders increased from only Chavez to seven others around the state.


-- Email the author at aortiz@news-bulletin.com.