“He loved those sheep,” recalls retired maintenance worker Tom Emmanuel about his years working with manager Cecil Kennedy at San Andres National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. A tribute in the Las Cruces Sun– News wrote that he was legendary in his own time because of the “excellent care and love Kennedy poured over the sheep.”

No desert bighorn sheep had been sighted for years when the refuge was established in 1941, and Kennedy’s predecessor, Arthur Halloran, began orchestrating their comeback. The sheep population continued to grow steadily under Kennedy’s management. It now numbers 120–130 animals in the San Andres Mountains.

Kennedy started working at San Andres Refuge in maintenance and was named manager in 1945—at a salary of $3,350. He held the position until his retirement in 1968. Former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Lynn Greenwalt called Kennedy a real–life cowboy and innovative manager.

San Andres Refuge is 57, 215 acres of rugged Chihuahuan desert mountains and canyons, and it is now completely surrounded by the White Sands Missile Range. Kennedy was among the last managers at the refuge to count sheep only from the ground. In 1968, the refuge began combining ground and helicopter counts. Before that, at least four men on horseback or foot would cover both slopes of a survey unit, riding along the mountain contour for the length of the slope.

“He looked like John Wayne,” said Emmanuel. “He was daring on horseback. He would do things others would consider risky to cover the area. He was very good at what he did.”

Kennedy received the Woodmen of the World Award in 1967 and the Department of the Interior’s Commendable Service Award in 1969 for his contributions to conservation.