| This month correspondent Michael Bodenchuk focuses on opportunities for free-range exotic hunts in New Mexico and Texas. Heres what he dug up on hunts for ibex, aoudad, oryx, black buck and axis deer:
New Mexico began an official, state-sponsored, exotic game program in the late 1960s. The state evaluated several species for possible introduction, among them greater kudu, Persian red sheep and Persian gazelle, none of which were ever released due to potential competition issues with native game. The animals that were released include gemsbok (which are called oryx in NM), Persian ibex (or pasang), and aoudad, (which are called Barbary sheep in NM). Siberian ibex were also released in the Canadian River Canyon near Roy, NM in the late 1970s, and a few were hunted under limited public and landowner permits. I worked this area in 1977 and saw the ibex regularly, but their numbers dwindled, and I doubt any remain.
The Persian ibex, however, was a stunning success - so much so that female ibex hunts are held today to keep the population in check. The Persian ibex, actually not a true ibex but a wild goat, was released in the Florida (pronounced as the Spanish: flor-ee-da) Mountains south and east of Deming, NM. This is a rugged mountain range about 20 miles long and only a single ridge-crest wide at the top, with many cliffs perfectly suited for ibex.
I personally accompanied ibex hunters in these mountains for about 10 years and believe this is a unique hunting opportunity in the US. Trophy size is as good as or better than in Iran (the world record horns are from this US herd), and special opportunities exist for muzzleloader and archery hunters. The best chance for success is, of course, the once-in-a-lifetime, either-sex, any firearm hunt, but the odds of drawing that tag run about 1:200. However, New Mexico's draw system is set up so that if your application is drawn, they will consider any of your first three choices before moving on to another hunter's application. Therefore, if you are willing to try the hunt with a muzzleloader, the odds improve significantly (around 1:42). New Mexico excludes ibex (and oryx) permits from resident/nonresident quotas, so all applications in the pool receive equal consideration.
New Mexico also has over-the-counter licenses available for areas outside of the main Florida Mountain habitat. At one time, when the population was extremely high, there were a number of ibex living off the mountain, but now this is almost unheard of. Personally, I would not waste my time or license fee on an over-the-counter ibex hunt.
We've covered the New Mexico oryx hunts extensively, and our database contains nine articles and 10 hunt reports. The White Sands Missile Range has the core of the population and has a number of hunts, including once-in-a-lifetime hunts, broken horn hunts and "mobility-impaired" hunts. Adjacent private lands have landowner tags as well. Each year, about 400 public draw, once-in-a-lifetime Missile Range oryx tags are drawn, spread out over eight different hunts. If you just want to hunt a NM oryx, you will eventually draw the tag for the Missile Range, but you'll only have two days (along with a lot of other hunters) to look for your trophy. If you're looking for a real quality hunt, consider the private land permits offered on the Armendaris Ranch (575-740-1161; email@example.com; www.tedturner.com/turner-ranches/turner-ranch-map/armendaris-ranch-new-mexico/). For recent updates, see Article 2962 from our August, 2012 issue, plus articles 2908 and hunt reports 8051 and 8704.
Finally, New Mexico has Barbary sheep in a number of areas, with both draw and over-the-counter tags available. In many areas of the state, Barbary sheep are unwelcome and the season is year-round with an over-the-counter tag. In a few areas, primarily on private lands, sheep are tolerated, and over-the-counter tags are available for a limited season. In a very few public land areas draw tags for a limited season are available. The best areas for private land Barbary sheep include the private lands west of Roswell and along the Canadian River upstream from the Texas/New Mexico border through the canyon. For public land, there were once large numbers of sheep in Largo Canyon near Farmington and on the south side of Mount Taylor, near Grants. I suspect there are still some sheep in both of these areas, but unless you live there and have unlimited time to hunt, these would be poor choices for a one-time hunt.
The best areas for Barbary sheep are Dog Canyon north of the Texas Border and along the west escarpment of the Sacramento Mountains in Unit 34. Both are draw areas with a season that runs for the month of February.
The New Mexico draw system requires on-line or over-the-phone applications with a deadline in late March. You will need to establish an online "customer" account for the draw before entering (https://onlinesales.wildlife.state.nm.us/). Nonresident ibex and oryx licenses are $1,630, while Barbary sheep licenses run $380. All hunters need a $4 "habitat management and access validation," and NM public land hunters need the $5 "habitat stamp." If you draw one of the missile range oryx hunts, you will pay an additional $100 to the missile range. * * * Texas has more exotic species than probably anywhere else in the world; the variety would astound you. An exotic field guide for Texas includes 14 deer species or hybrids, 34 antelope species, 16 species of sheep or goats, five bovine species and 11 other exotic animals! There are several places where individuals of some species are roaming at large, and in many cases a small population may become established. I know of pockets of free-roaming ibex, red deer, barasingha, fallow deer and sika. But for the traveling hunter there are really just four species of free-roaming exotics that are of interest; axis deer, blackbuck antelope, aoudad and nilgai.
In the interest of full disclosure, I need to state that my son guides for free-range axis deer here in Texas. I find these deer an interesting species to hunt, a beautiful trophy, and they are very good to eat as well. Native to India and Nepal, axis deer have white spots on a chestnut coat throughout their lives. Their antlers typically have a single brow tine and another point which comes off the main beam near the top for a 3x3 rack. Because they are a tropical species, they may breed year-round, and you might find some males in hard antler at any time of the year. However, the majority of the males shed their velvet in April and rut in July. This odd rut timing makes for an interesting off-season hunt, when males call to each other and the bucks may be fighting over females. However, it is not uncommon to find axis deer with broken tines after the rut starts, so many hunters time their hunt either for April (to get a trophy in full velvet) or May-June to try to minimize the number of broken-antlered deer. Axis deer are common from San Antonio west through the Edwards Plateau and through south Texas.
Blackbuck are another dry, warm weather species native to India and Pakistan. While axis deer like heavy cover, blackbuck prefer open habitat where they can see. The bucks are highly territorial and only the dominant male displays the classic black neck and body with a white belly and eye rings. The color is darker in the winter, but dominant males are always darker than subordinate males and only so many "shooter" blackbuck can be found on a property at any one time. Blackbuck are notorious for exploiting holes in fences, but where they are comfortable they will live their lives in a low-fenced area. Free-range blackbuck occur in the same areas where free-range axis occur, largely because they are limited by cold, icy weather. Ranches around Bandera, Brackettville, Rocksprings and Sonora can have free-range blackbuck.
If you are looking for a blackbuck in Texas, we have 36 subscriber reports on 19 ranches or guide services, 35 of them positive. The most recent report (8999) is from 2012 on Action Outdoor Adventures (see also report 7663). Indianhead Ranch (855-443-4868; www.indianheadranch.com) has 17 positive reports for blackbuck, the most recent (8434) from 2011, the oldest (3069) from 2002. Aoudad are free-roaming in most mountains in West Texas and are only absent in areas where ranchers have committed to shooting them on sight for the protection of desert bighorn sheep. Free-range aoudad may also be found along the Devils River into the Edwards Plateau, along the eastern edge of the Llano Estacado in the South Panhandle and in Palo Duro Canyon south of Amarillo. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department holds public draw, exotic hunts for aoudad in wildlife management areas around the state, including Caprock Canyons, Palo Duro and Devils River.
Jim Roche of Magnum Guide Service (325-853-1555; www.magnumguideservice.com) offers hunts in the Chinati Mountains southwest of Marfa. These are spectacular mountains, and the trophy sheep here are hard-earned. While the accommodations and food are much better than a spike camp, expect to climb, glass and walk a lot on this hunt. We have 11 positive subscriber reports in our database on this outfitter; seven of those hunts targeted aoudad.
Another outfitter I've hunted with personally is Billy Jackson of Outback Outfitters (432-290-0944; www.outbackoutfitter.net). Billy hunts a very large ranch in the Glass Mountains south of Ft. Stockton. While the sheep are as big as (or maybe bigger than) those found farther west, the Glass Mountains are not as rough as the Chinatis. Billy and his guides are able to drive to a lot of their country and glass, and they use special "ranch buggies," similar to a Texas Quail rig, to hunt from. While these are truly wild sheep, this is one sheep hunt that is suitable for hunters with less-than-youthful legs and energy.
Finally, nilgai are free-roaming in deep south Texas, along the Laguna Madre. While widespread in range, there are only a handful of ranches in this country because the properties are so very large. This is the home of the famous King Ranch, the Kenedy Ranch and other large landholdings. Nilgai are a large antelope, again native to India and Nepal. Mature bull nilgai are a muscular 500-600 pounds and have six- to 10-inch horns that twist on their axis. With such small horns, nilgai can be hard to judge, but a trophy bull will have a dark charcoal to almost blue coat, thick, muscular neck and triangular horn bases. Female nilgai and immature bulls are tan in color with females about 1/3 smaller than males. Nilgai are tough animals and require substantial bullets for good penetration. While nilgai are common in the high-fence exotic industry, free-range nilgai hunts are offered by relatively few outfitters. Lomas Chicas Outfitters (361-296-4571; www.lomaschicasoutfitters.com, see article 2816) is featured prominently in the Hunting Report database. Another outfitter offering free-range nilgai is Greg Simons of Wildlife Systems (325-655-0877; www.wildlifesystems.com). Both outfitters offer true free-range hunts with excellent trophy potential. Nilgai, incidentally, are excellent eating, and many outfitters will offer hunts for female nilgai at a reduced price as an add-on to a bull hunt. There are also high densities of javelina and feral hogs on many of the properties, and a feral hog/javelina/nilgai hunt is certainly possible.
Postscript: In a future issue, Bodenchuk will outline some off-the-radar "elsewhere" opportunities for more free-range exotics. You'll be surprised at what he digs up. Stay tuned!