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desert bighorn sheep

The aoudad story

Did you know before reading this post what an aoudad is, other than a potentially useful word to know the next time you play Scrabble? I admit that I had never heard of them, but the state is Texas has loads of them.

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.

Turns out that hunting aoudads is a nice piece of business for ranchers in Texas, in part because there are no limits on how many one can shoot due to their non-native invasive species designation. Do an image search for aoudad, and you’ll find a lot of places where you can get your hunt on for them. They’re going to be around, making life a little harder for the native desert bighorns, for a long time. And now we both know about the aoudads.