August 31, 2016
The word "exotic" is scientifically correct, defining a plant or animal that is not native to a given area and thus got there either accidentally or on purpose. Unfortunately, for many hunters, "exotic" carries a negative connotation, somewhat tainted by a hint of high fences. This doesn't necessarily apply.
For instance, what about the ring-necked pheasant? The pheasant is probably America's most important upland game bird today, and I'm amazed that so many people don't know that the first pheasants were brought in from China only a century ago. Other important exotic game birds include the chukar and Hungarian partridge.
What about wild hogs? Although sometimes called Russian wild boars and other fancy names, wild hogs in North America are simply feral pigs, though some areas have a strong influence from releases of genuine Eurasian wild boars. They have now been sighted in all states except Alaska, with current population estimates as high as 9 million.
They are changing America's hunting scene because they offer opportunity. The vast majority are free-ranging, increasing annually in range and numbers, and landowners hate them. They're tough on crops, and their rooting is hard on the land, with agricultural damages from hogs approaching $2 billion. Landowners who won't allow other hunting often welcome pig hunters.
Without question, the epicenter for non-native big game is the Texas Hill Country, where many ranches are stocked with a wide variety of species. It is absolutely true that the more rare varieties are often taken more as a collection than a hunt.
However, the most common species such as axis deer, aoudad sheep, blackbuck, fallow deer, mouflon and sika deer are generally free-ranging on large acreage. These animals have been breeding in Texas for a long time. Over the years, there have been escapees, and all four of these also occur in a genuine free-range situation.
Either way, they offer an enjoyable hunting experience, often during times when native seasons are not open. Horned animals such as aoudad, blackbuck and mouflon can be hunted year-round. The axis is a tropical deer that keeps an unusual schedule. Some individuals can be found in hard antler in any month, but the majority come into hard antler in May, with the rut in June and July. The axis deer could well be the most beautiful deer in the world, offering a wonderful off-season adventure.
The aoudad is a special case. In the heavy oak brush of the Hill Country, they are very difficult to hunt, whether on a game ranch or free range, but they are originally creatures of the arid mountains of North Africa. Today, they are widely distributed and totally free-ranging in the mountains of West Texas, including the Glass, Davis and Chinati Mountains, and the Palo Duro Canyon up toward the Panhandle.
This is harsh country, but I hunted aoudad, also called Barbary sheep, in Chad, on the southern fringe of the Sahara. Nothing in North America is nearly as harsh, and our aoudad grow much larger than their African ancestors. They are my favorite non-native animal to hunt, and in mountainous country they offer a genuine sheep-hunting experience at a fraction of the cost of any North American sheep hunt.
Unlike most of these animals, they are not found just in Texas. Aoudad are in several areas in New Mexico, and there's a population in the mountains of California's Central Coast. I heard that there's even a free-ranging population in Oregon.
The nilgai is another interesting Texas exotic. A large antelope originally from India, it is a tropical animal that can't withstand prolonged cold. There are thousands of them free-ranging along the Texas Gulf Coast, but they haven't expanded inland because the winters rapidly become too harsh. Nilgai were cheated in the horn department. They're thick skinned and incredibly tough, yet they offer some of the finest venison.
New Mexico actually has several interesting non-natives. Hunter and naturalist Frank Hibben headed up the New Mexico game commission for some years. He believed in habitat niches, areas that weren't suitable to native species but where introduced species might do well.
He experimented with several species, some of which didn't thrive, but this is why we have gemsbok from southern Africa in New Mexico's White Sands region, Persian ibex in the Florida Mountains and aoudad here and there, all huntable. I got a permit for an oryx a couple of years ago, and it was a wonderful hunt. The scrub desert looked exactly like the Kalahari, and the animals were clearly perfectly at home.
There are actually non-native populations of this and that scattered around the continent. There are several pockets of fallow deer, often an insider's deal with locations carefully guarded. European reindeer can be hunted on Alaska's Kodiak Island and the southern coast of Greenland, originally introduced in both places as an alternative food source. Maryland's Eastern Shore holds several thousand sika deer, mostly in Dorchester County, apparently descended from an accidental release.
As the story goes, a barge carrying sika deer (for an unknown reason) ran aground, and several deer escaped. The sika is a small, three-tined, round-antlered deer native to Japan and eastern Asia of the same Cervus genus as our elk. In Maryland's coastal marshes, they're the very devil to hunt. In 2013, I went during the October rut, archery season. They don't bugle like elk; they whistle and scream, and it was a marvelous experience.
Another interesting opportunity was hunting sambar along California's Central Coast. Publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst once owned much of this country, and he experimented with numerous species. Not all thrived, but there are known populations of aoudad, Himalayan tahr and sambar, and once in a while a rancher or deer hunter bumps into a zebra. The sambar, native to India, is also a Cervidae, but it is a large and powerfully built animal. Exactly how many there are is unknown.
We humans have been manipulating nature for so many centuries that every continent has a complement of exotic species. In some areas, they are very important. All of Hawaii's hunting is for non-native animals, with the menu including axis and blacktail deer, European mouflon, and feral sheep, goats and pigs, along with exotic game birds. Virtually all of the big-game hunting in Australia and New Zealand is for introduced species, and the large majority of Argentina's huntable species are introduced.
At this time, none of our American exotics rivals our native species in numbers or hunter interest, except for wild hogs. While I think the hunting opportunity they offer is a good thing, they're changing our landscape and hunting culture. For sure, it's too late to put the genie back in the bottle, so we might as well enjoy the ride.
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