BREWSTER COUNTY, TEXAS — Three Texas Parks and Wildlife Department employees died after their helicopter crashed in a West Texas wildlife preserve, the department announced Sunday.
The group was surveying desert bighorn sheep in the Black Gap Wildlife Management Area on Saturday when the helicopter went down, according to a statement from the agency.
It was not immediately clear what caused the crash, which Gov. Greg Abbott called a “tragic accident.”
The crash killed Dewey Stockbridge, a wildlife biologist, Brandon White, a department technician, and Dr. Bob Dittmar, a veterinarian.
The helicopter's pilot, a private contractor, survived and was taken to an El Paso hospital for treatment, according to the department.
The Black Gap Wildlife Management Area is near the U.S.-Mexico border in Brewster County, some 300 miles southeast of El Paso.
The Brewster County Sheriff's Office, Texas Department of Public Safety, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Texas Game Wardens were all investigating the crash, ABC affiliate KMID reported.
Texas wildlife officials have been instrumental in restoring numbers of desert bighorn sheep after the population decreased due to disease and unregulated hunting, according to TPWD, which estimated the bighorn's population in Texas at 1,500 in 2018.
Stockbridge worked on conservation of the species for several years. In 2016, during an interview with Outside Magazine, he spoke on the importance of managing the herds.
"When you reintroduce desert bighorn in a landscape such as Elephant Mountain here, it's really a trickledown effect," he said. "There are numerous other species that benefit from them being reintroduced to certain mountain ranges."
Officials conduct aerial surveys throughout the year to monitor population size and observe the animal's behavior.
Dittmar joined the TPWD as the agency's first-ever staff veterinarian in 2014, according to the agency. Previously, he assisted in various projects with the agency and was in private practice in Kerrville, northwest of San Antonio.
"My wife's telling everybody that I'm going to be making sure that my grandkids and great grandkids have wildlife to enjoy in the future," Dittmar said in an interview with TPWD in 2014. "I'm going to be a part helping to ensure that our wildlife populations are healthy, and looking at it more from a veterinary medical standpoint than strictly a management and biological standpoint."