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Exotics enrich NM hunting opportunity

By Jim Bates, Special to New Mexico Wildlife Federation

The three Barbary rams lay placidly on the steep, open slope 225 yards below as my hunting buddy Steve and I slowly slithered into shooting position behind the scrub mahogany, our only concealment from their normally sharp eyes.

Using a couple of stout branches to rest and steady our rifles, each of us picked a ram. At the report of Steve’s rifle, one of the bedded animals lurched forward and fell. Another stood up and turned broadside to look toward the commotion, offering me my chance. My shot rang out, and just like that, two big, mature Barbary rams were down.

Like the other 2,000 or so hunters who had Barbary sheep tags in 2014, we were experiencing a wonderful hunt for this magnificent species of game in the wilds of New Mexico, several thousand miles away from its native habitat in north Africa.

Just two weeks before that hunt, Steve and I had assisted my son Ryan as he harvested a fine trophy Persian ibex on the Florida Mountains, and a few months prior to that, we had harvested a couple of nice African oryx north of Las Cruces.

Our hunting year had been filled with opportunities galore – most of them in pursuit of non-native, exotic species.

New Mexico is blessed with a range of native big game species and hunting opportunity that are hard to match in the West, and sportsmen must ensure that mule deer, pronghorn and other native species get the habitat they need to thrive into the future. But exotics provide an additional opportunity that few, if any, other states enjoy. To many of us, oryx, ibex and Barbary sheep are a much-welcomed chance to hunt big game.

So, how did this bonanza of exotic hunting opportunity come about? And what are its implications for New Mexico sportsmen?

The answer to the first question is easy. The Department of Game and Fish, back in the 1950s and ‘60s, contemplated the introduction of non-native species to fill habitats that were perceived to be inhospitable to native big game. Various species were investigated as potential candidates for introduction. The three mentioned above finally won approval, as did the Iranian ibex. Greater Kudu were considered too, but eventually were nixed.

The Iranian ibex was introduced into the Canadian River canyon area, and for a time, it appeared that they might take hold. In fact, a few hunts were held for this species in the 1970s. However, their numbers eventually began to fade and eventually this ibex species, a much larger version of the Persian species that inhabits the Floridas, disappeared altogether several decades ago.

The populations of the “big three” New Mexico exotics, though, have thrived. Barbary sheep, oryx and ibex are all found in good numbers, not only in the areas they were introduced, but also in many areas they were not and into which they have expanded. Liberal hunting opportunities are available, both within their intended ranges and beyond.

The question is no longer whether these species can survive far away from their native ranges, but how to control them adequately to keep them from impacting New Mexico’s native wildlife populations.

Game and Fish surveyed oryx in 2013 and estimates the population at 2,300 to 2,800 animals. That’s substantially lower than the previous decade. The department and White Sands Missile Range biologists worked together to reduce the on-range population, in part because of conflicts with WSMR work but also because of habitat issues, according to Game and Fish. This year’s reduction in on-range oryx license numbers (once-in-a-lifetime hunts fell from 420 to 314) reflect plans by Game and Fish and WSMR to stabilize or slightly increase the population from current levels.

Current management objectives are to keep oryx on or near WSMR and not expand to new areas. Harvest success rates for off-range oryx remain high, according to Game and Fish – 48 percent success for the 2013-14 season).

The Persian ibex population in the Florida Mountains has been prolific over the past four decades and above objective for the last seven years. The Game and Fish Department has experimented with hunting strategies to keep the population in check, but it is expected that continuing population control measures will be needed on a regular basis for this species.

A post-hunt survey this year yielded 536 ibex. The population objective is 350 to 500 ibex in the Florida Mountains. The once-in-a-lifetime ibex hunt is one of the most sought-after in New Mexico; draw odds are less than 5 percent, Game and Fish says.

The department does not conduct formal population surveys for Barbary sheep. Estimates are calculated from harvest results and from observations by biologists, hunters and game wardens in the field, according to Game and Fish. The animals are very resilient and live in many remote and hard to access areas that allow populations to persist.

Most of us who enjoy pursuing these species are in no hurry to see them disappear. Yet any reasonable hunter with an eye toward responsible conservation and wildlife management must ponder the long-term impacts these species could have on animal populations that rightfully belong here.

For instance, wildlife biologists have discovered that bighorn sheep, a species on which we have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to establish stable and viable populations, can have their breeding cycle disrupted by the presence of Barbary sheep. Barbary rams have been found to keep bighorn rams from breeding the ewes.

The desert bighorn program has been extremely successful, and now Game and Fish is considering a plan to transplant a herd to the west escarpment of the Sacramento Mountains, in GMU 34. The area is considered to be “unoccupied bighorn range” because of historical evidence that the species lived there in years past, according to Game and Fish planning documents.

But in the meantime, Barbary sheep have migrated into the area. To improve the bighorns’ chances of survival, the department has offered year-round, over-the-counter hunting with unlimited licenses for Barbary sheep along the escarpment.

This, in effect, has created a classic example of the difficulties that arise when non-natives are introduced. On one hand, we have a non-native species that has expanded outside its intended range and is thriving. And on the other, we have a species that thrived in the range for thousands of years, but now needs intensive management to maintain its numbers in the face of competition from the non-natives.

At recent Game and Fish public meeting in Alamogordo, a number of hunters noted that Barbary sheep already provide significant hunting opportunity at virtually no management cost, while introducing desert bighorns would provide just a handful of tags for a couple of very lucky sportsmen.

Another view is that we have a chance now to restore huntable populations of a species that has existed in New Mexico since time immemorial, a species that deserves the support of the hunting community in doing all we can to reestablish it to one of its historic ranges, regardless of the cost in terms of recreational opportunity for hunters.

Needless to say, there are strong proponents on both sides of the debate. It is doubtful there will be a compromise that will satisfy everybody – or perhaps anybody.

The fact is that our exotic game animals are likely here to stay, regardless of any future intentions to annihilate them all. Under current management strategies, hunters play an important role in keeping them at a manageable level. Presently, we are fortunate to have that opportunity, and I, for one, am grateful for it.

Jim Bates is a longtime Las Cruces hunter, an outspoken advocate on sportsmen’s issues and a frequent contributor to the Outdoor Reporter.