Tragedy struck the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department on Saturday, Aug. 8, 2020, when three agency employees died in a helicopter crash in the rugged terrain of southwestern Texas.
TPWD stated in a news release that the crash victims included wildlife biologist Dewey Stockbridge, fish and wildlife technician Brandon White, and state wildlife veterinarian Dr. Bob Dittmar. The pilot, a private contractor, survived the crash according to TPWD, and was transported to El Paso for further treatment.
Dittmar, who along with Stockbridge was a Texas A&M University graduate, was reportedly set to retire from both TPWD and his private practice at the end of the month. He was an expert on chronic wasting disease as the Lone Star State continues to battle the fatal deer disease.
Following the death of the three men, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statement concerning their loss: "Our hearts ache today for those who died in this tragic accident. Cecilia and I are deeply saddened by this loss and we extend our sympathies to the families and loved ones of the victims. I ask all Texans to keep these families in their thoughts and prayers."
The crash took place as the biologists were doing annual aerial survey work for the desert bighorn sheep herd located within TPWD’s Black Gap Wildlife Management Area in Brewster County.
All were working on behalf of the agency’s ongoing desert bighorn sheep restoration efforts, a successful project chronicled in a recent article by the Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine.
A part of the Chihuahuan Desert, one of TPWD's stated goals for the Black Gap WMA area is "…to provide suitable habitat for the re-introduction of desert bighorn sheep." Historically, the agency notes that as many as 1,500 desert bighorn sheep lived in West Texas. But numbers declined greatly by the end of the 19th Century and efforts to restore their population began as early as 1903.
In the century-plus since then, desert bighorns have slowly been rebounding in the area, including at the rugged Black Gap WMA where sheep imports from Arizona, Mexico, and Nevada have helped rebuild the herd. According to TPWD, the population is doing well after the long and arduous road to recovery, so much so that the wild sheep have expanded their range onto surrounding private properties on both sides of the Rio Grande, as well as into nearby Big Bend National Park.
The loss of the three biologists was a difficult one to quantify according to TPWD executive director Carter Smith.
"No words can begin to express the depth of sadness we feel for the loss of our colleagues in this tragic accident," he said in a news release. "These men were consummate professionals, deeply liked and highly regarded by their peers and partners alike for the immense passion, dedication, and expertise they brought to their important work in wildlife management and veterinary medicine.
"Wildlife conservation in Texas lost three of its finest as they so honorably and dutifully carried out thier calling to help survey, monitor and protect the bighorns of their beloved west Texas mountains. We will miss Dewey, Brandon, and Dr. Bob deeply and dearly.
"All of us at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department send our deepest condolences and sympathies to the Stockbridge, White, and Dittmar families in the wake of this devastating tragedy and continue to pray for the health and recovery of the pilot."
Since 1919, TPWD says 19 Texas game wardens have lost their lives in the line of duty, the most recent in 2008. But it is unknown exactly how many biologists have perished down through the years as they worked for the agency.
A search of the TPWD website shows that the last biologist lost in the line of duty was Wes Littrell, who passed away in May 2010 after he was involved in a tractor-related accident at the Gus Engeling WMA, where he worked near his Athens, Tex., home.
Tragically, that very WMA in Anderson County is named for Gus Engeling, another TPWD employee who died while working. Engeling, both a game warden and a biologist for the agency, was murdered by a duck poacher in Anderson County in 1951 near the current site of the WMA bearing his name. The poacher was apprehended, convicted of murder and eventually received the death penalty for his crime.
While there’s no word yet about what may have caused Saturday’s fatal helicopter crash, TPWD indicates that the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Federal Aviation Administration and Texas Game Wardens are currently investigating the accident.
Further details about the accident’s investigation will be shared with the public when they become available.
As of this writing, there’s no word on pending funeral arrangements for the TPWD employees who died in the crash or where donations in their memory can be made.