Froylan Hernandez has spent the better part of the last two months counting sheep from a helicopter. That’s not a metaphor or a kind of experimental sleep study; it’s his job.
“Oh, that’s a pretty good-sized group,” Hernandez says, looking down from the helicopter.
Hernandez is the desert bighorn sheep program leader for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. He rides in the helicopter each summer for a bighorn census. It’s the most effective method out in the West Texas mountains. But even though he’s looking for bighorns, he mostly finds another kind of sheep.
“Alright, so 32 aoudads? Yeah, 32 aoudads, copy,” Hernandez says.
Aoudads – also known as Barbary sheep – are all over West Texas, but they’re originally from North Africa. They have a long set of horns that curl back into a crescent shape, and a distinctive strip of long, shaggy hair on their neck and chest. They were brought to Texas in the 1950s as exotic game. Since then, wild populations have flourished in the dry, rocky terrain. In fact, from Hernandez’s point of view, they’ve been too successful.
“It’s not uncommon for us, when we’re flying, to see groups of two and three hundred,” he says.
Hernandez’s job is to support Texas’ population of desert bighorn sheep, not aoudads. Desert bighorns are native to Texas, but died out here in the 1960s due to overhunting and disease spread from domestic sheep. The state has worked to bring them back for the better part of three decades now, nurturing small populations in various mountain ranges. Now, there are about 1,500 desert bighorns in Texas, and Hernandez is working to increase their numbers even more. And that’s where the problem with aoudads comes in.
“They can pose a great threat to bighorns, not just [from] a competition-for-resource standpoint but also from a disease-threat standpoint,” he says.
Aoudads and desert bighorns compete for the same resources. And since there are already so many aoudads, they’re a speed bump on the desert bighorns’ road to population growth. Plus, Hernandez says that several West Texas aoudads tested positive last fall for a species of bacteria that’s caused fatal respiratory disease in desert bighorn populations elsewhere.
“And it’s not uncommon to have localized population extinctions because of this Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae,” he says.
So, while Hernandez is hovering over West Texas counting desert bighorns, he’s also keeping an eye out for aoudads, and shooting them whenever possible. Wherever he does an aerial survey, he asks the landowner’s permission to cull aoudads.
“And we try to do a total removal of any aoudad that we encounter,” Hernandez says.
In Texas, aoudads are considered a nonnative, invasive species, even though they’ve been West Texas residents since before desert bighorns were reintroduced in the late ’70s. Since they impede the progress of their native cousins, the state’s wildlife management authorities have decided that they’ve got to go. But more and more, the task of dispatching them has become more difficult – not because it’s gotten harder to shoot animals from a helicopter, but because aoudads have become valuable commodities.
“A lot of that’s because of the publicity they’ve gotten over the past five or 10 years. They weren’t really looked at as a sporting animal that much; they weren’t really known to most people,” says Bob Daugherty, a hunting guide who’s lead aoudad hunts on a piece of property near Presidio for nine years.
Because aoudads are considered an invasive species, hunters can shoot as many as they want, whenever they want. But hunters will hire an expert like Daugherty to guide them through the rough terrain to find a trophy ram. It’s a big business: Daugherty charges about $5,000 per hunt. And it’s apparently easy to get hooked.
“You know, I’ve been guiding all my life, and next to calling in bugling elk, aoudad – that’s my favorite hunt. And then, when a guy hunts them, I probably get a 70% percent return rate,” Daugherty says.
Some of the money from those hunts goes to the landowner. That’s why when Hernandez asks, some of them will let him cull aoudads, and some won’t.
“And because of that, we’ll never get rid of the aoudad,” he says.
Which is fine by Daugherty, the hunting guide. He’s got nothing against the desert bighorn sheep but …
“To put them in every area where they used to be, and then wipe out all the aoudad, I’m totally against that,” he says.
It’s a case of those trying to return an ecosystem to its original state running up against the economic realities of rural lands. And caught in the crosshairs is the aoudad.