Friday, October 12, 2012

New Mexico: Fauna Exotica

In Missouri, we've got the flying asian carp to contend with.

In the South, the nutria are 10-pound rats, basically, originally from South America.

In Florida, Burmese pythons have slithered to the top of the food chain.

All of the above are transplants - intended or not - from foreign climes.

In New Mexico, there are some big foreign critters to watch out for:
  • Oryx
  • Ibex
  • Barbary sheep


Oryx in New Mexico. Credit: Wallagogo Outfitters

I'm showing the above photo so you can get an idea of the size as compared to the person. And how sharp those horns are. 

I remember how excited I was to see oryx in Ethiopia from a bus as I traveled from Harar to Nazret.  Here in New Mexico, they say "oryx breed like rabbits on speed."

From what I gather, New Mexico's oryx population peaked at 7000 five years ago, but due to managed hunts, the population is now down to about 3000.

How the oryx got here:

From the High Country News, A Graceful Gazelle Becomes a Pest, October 2001, by Robert Rowley
The idea to provide exotic big-game hunting opportunities for local hunters originated just after World War II with Frank C. Hibben, today professor emeritus of archaeology at the University of New Mexico, but then chairman of the New Mexico Game Commission. Mustered out of the Navy in the Mediterranean, Hibben had hunted oryx in the Atlas Mountains in northwest Africa, an area that resembled his adopted state of New Mexico. Hibben believed there was a "niche" in the Chihuahuan Desert that would support a large ungulate. Years later, he paid for and helped to trap 18 oryx which, after quarantine, were shipped from Africa to New Jersey and then on to the Albuquerque Zoo.

Under federal law, the original animals had to spend the rest of their lives confined at the zoo, but their offspring were released onto White Sands Missile Range, a 2.2 million-acre parcel of property. Studies conducted in the 1960s by wildlife-management scientists at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces suggested that the oryx would be successful, but nobody knew just how far they would spread - or how many problems they would cause.

"The oryx thought this was home sweet home," says Hibben, "and they took to New Mexico like ducks to water."

What problems do the oryx cause? 

Awhile back, they created a problem at Holloman Air Force Base when they wandered around on the runways. They were a factor in a number of vehicle crashes at White Sands Missile Base. The oryx trampled or otherwise disturbed native habitat at White Sands National Monument and other fragile areas.

Because of the various state-sanctioned hunting programs over the years, the current oryx population is more manageable today than it was in the past. 


Ibex in New Mexico. Credit: Organ Mountain Outfitting

Unlike the oryx population, the Persian ibex population remains constant in the hundreds and not the thousands. The ibex also, thus far, have remained within the confines of their original release area in the Florida Mountains near Deming, New Mexico.

Like the oryx, the ibex were brought to New Mexico for the pleasure of domestic big-game hunters. The New Mexico Game and Fish Department introduced them to New Mexico at about the same time as the oryx.

In the photo above, the ibex looks immense, but they generally get up to 30" height at the shoulders. Males get up to 150 pounds; females, 90.

A good summary of the Persian ibex in New Mexico is here.

Barbary sheep

Barbary sheep in New Mexico. Credit: Freedom Outfitters

It's generally agreed that New Mexico's Barbary sheep population grew from two sources: 1) a private ranch in New Mexico had imported the sheep from Africa, and some began to escape into the New Mexico countryside in 1943; and 2) in 1950, the New Mexico Game and Fish Department introduced Barbary sheep into areas where the native desert bighorn sheep had disappeared.

Recently, there's been talk about eliminating the Barbary sheep from the Carlsbad National Park and re-introducing desert bighorn sheep. Barbary sheep outweigh the desert bighorn sheep and they eat a more diverse diet than the bighorn, giving them the survival advantage. 

The Barbary sheep can be as tall as 3 feet or so at the shoulder and weigh up to 300 pounds, while the desert bighorn weigh up to 200 pounds.

I didn't know any of this until I talked to some of the folks at Oliver Lee Memorial State Park. Just another one of those things that make New Mexico an extraordinary place.

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