These two desert species have been subject to the same indignities of living alongside humans: They both have been hunted to the brink of extinction, and both have been transplanted to this part of West Texas, as aoudads, and later new populations of desert bighorns, were brought in to replace diminished bighorn herds. Many Texans, however, believe that only one, the desert bighorn, truly belongs here.
Unfortunately for them, bighorns are smaller and weaker than the sheeplike aoudads, which reproduce easily and require little water. A 2018 census found nearly 5,000 aoudads populating two mountain ranges in West Texas; decades of costly reintroduction efforts have nurtured a smaller population of desert bighorns, now tallying about 1,500 across 11 mountain ranges.
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In December, Black Gap, a state-owned wildlife-management area, received a transplant of bighorns from nearby Elephant Mountain, which serves as the state’s well of bighorn brood stock. Since Smith’s property abuts Black Gap, the transplanted sheep will likely wander over. “The deal is, if you want the bighorn sheep—you have to protect them,” Smith says.
Hence Smith’s willingness to shoot any wayward aoudad he encounters on his land. “Unfortunately, they're not supposed to be here,” says Froylan Hernandez, who leads desert bighorn programs for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. On state lands, or with a private landowner’s permission, he too will, at times, shoot aoudads on sight. “Our responsibility would be to exterminate them,” he says.
Halfway around the world, such eradication is unthinkable. Fossil remains in Libya suggest that the aoudad was one of the planet’s first ruminants—the group that includes cattle, giraffes, and moose—and has long served as an important source of meat, hide, and hair. While North America hosts some 75,000 aoudads, fewer than 10,000 individuals free-range in the species’s native North Africa. There, aoudads—which are closely related to goats and sheep but actually belong to their own unique biological genus—are considered at high risk of extinction in the wild.
The aoudad is not the only example of this paradox in the Lone Star State. It is part of a suite of nonnative hoofed animals introduced from abroad, dubbed “Texotics,” and one of a small subset of Texotics that have proliferated stateside while disappearing from their home range. As invaders that face extinction elsewhere, aoudads and species like them pose a problem: Are they ecological troublemakers, refugees, or—somehow, impossibly—both at the same time?
The earliest record of an aoudad’s U.S. entry is the 1900 arrival of a specimen from Liverpool, England, en route to Jersey City. The animal soon became so plentiful in American zoos that some managers routinely slaughtered a third of their herds to feed carnivorous exhibits. In 1957 and 1958, Texas wildlife officials released about 40 aoudads as legal game into the state’s Palo Duro Canyon, to develop more income opportunities for private ranchers. “They saved ranchers,” says Charly Seale, the executive director of the Exotic Wildlife Association.