It seems to me that what counts about hunting “exotics”–non-native animals that were introduced at some time in the past—is how much effort you have to put into it. For example, my experience with nilgai is that they are not easy to hunt by any means, require a good shot with a rifle of sufficient power to put them down and provide as much good eating as the average elk. The trophy’s nothing to write home about, but so what? Looking at it another way, why is a whitetail buck a more “legitimate” trophy because it’s native, if the buck in question is shot under circumstances similar to the nilgai?
Ever since Jack O’Connor, the most treasured North American trophy has been the bighorn sheep, either mountain or desert. For the better part of a century, however, desert bighorns have been scarce, tags hard to come by, and the cost, for most of us, prohibitive. Yet many would love a chance to hunt in the rugged desert mountains of the Southwest, if not to shoot a bighorn, at least to experience what it was like.
In the 1962 Gun Digest, O’Connor wrote that, “The average American today has about as much chance to get a legal desert bighorn as he does to catch a saber-tooth tiger.” That was more than 50 years ago, and if the situation has changed for the better, it’s not by much. In the same article, discussing world-wide trophies that compare with the bighorn, O’Connor mentioned the argali tribe of Asian sheep, the urial and red sheep of the Middle East, and — not least — the aoudad of North Africa.
Any of those, he believed, offered a big-game trophy that compared in terms of rarity, difficulty of hunting, physical traits and instincts and native terrain. At the time O’Connor wrote that, American ranchers had just begun importing aoudad from North Africa, and transplanting them in the desert mountains of Texas and New Mexico, which are much like Morocco’s High Atlas.
The aoudad is a distant relative of the North American bighorn, although some scientists classify them more as a wild goat. Their horns are sheep-like, but in terms of eating, they are more goat-like. Today, aoudad are common in parts of the Southwest, and can be hunted freely, unconstrained (because of their exotic status) by game-department limits and seasons.
In February, I went to Cibolo Creek Ranch in west Texas to hunt aoudad in the Chinati Mountains. O’Connor often said the ancient mountains of the Southwest were the toughest hunting in North America, and after climbing the Chinatis, I can’t disagree. Not the highest, or even the steepest, but certainly the most treacherous. If you like hazardous climbing in pursuit of your trophies, the Chinatis are for you.
Physically, the aoudad resembles the desert bighorn in coloring and general horn shape, which makes them hard to spot in the granite red of the crumbling Chinatis. They favor the high slopes, just at the base of the cliffs that hold up the mesas. From there, they have a long view of what’s below, are shielded from above and yet can hop up, over and out of sight in an instant.
Hunting them is generally done by slowly cruising rough mountain tracks, trying to spot one from below, and then maneuver into position to get a shot. Shots are long, tracking tough to impossible and the climbing as bad as any Chugach scree I ever encountered. The thorn bushes and cactus that dot the slopes, waiting for you to make a desperate grab, just add to the fun.
Having hunted the Chinati Mountains on Cibolo Creek, and come back with a big old aoudad and nothing worse than a few bruises and a gouged-up rifle stock, I no longer feel a deep-seated need to chase desert bighorns in Sonora. And if the aoudad occupies the space on the wall I’d been saving for a desert bighorn, he’s welcome to it.–Terry Wieland