Free Range Exotics? Check Out New Mexico


Are you a hunter searching for big game that leans more to the exotic side? Perhaps the affordability of a trip to Africa, Asia, or Europe is not a viable solution for you right now. There does exist an “at home” option that does not involve high fences, or thousands of dollars in trespass or trophy fees.

New Mexico, as you may or may not know, offers public hunts for three premier big game species within its borders. These hunts are completely free range and could provide you the hunt of a lifetime. The only caveat… hunting is hunting and there are certainly no absolutes when pursuing any free-range game animal.

These exotics include, Persian Ibex, Oryx or Gemsbok, and Barbary Sheep or Aoudad. New Mexico Department of Game and Fish (NMDGF) experimented with the introduction of these species during the 1950s and ‘60s. The end result was public hunting opportunities for theses exotics becoming possible in the state as far back as the 1970s.

Perhaps a closer look at each species and hunting options would be helpful.

Persian Ibex

Ibex came to inhabit the Florida Mountains of southwestern New Mexico in 1970 after the Department of Game and Fish imported around 45 of the animals from Iran. By 1974, the Department was holding its first ibex hunt for the public. Currently, these hunts are offered in the fall and winter of each year. However, permit numbers have decreased. 

Most licensing for Ibex in New Mexico is through the public draw system. However, unlimited over the counter licenses are available in zones outside of the main Florida Mountains for population control. 

Ascending the peaks of the Florida Mountains, near Deming, New Mexico, will challenge any hunter and provide near perfect habitat for ibex. These cliffs and canyons mirror the home range of ibex in Iran and rise upward to 7,500 feet. The agility of these animals to scale almost sheer cliff walls is legendary and makes this one of the toughest hunts in the U.S. 

trophy Ibex in mountains
Two trophy Ibex in the 40-plus inch class on the Florida Mountains of southwestern New Mexico.

Strategies for hunting ibex are first and foremost quality optics and lots of glassing. Both a high magnification spotting scope and good binoculars will be critical to scan the rugged peaks and cliff faces of the Florida Mountains. The mature males, or billies as they are sometimes called, have an almost white coat in the winter months. Having the sun at your back when glassing will be to your advantage.

Once you spot your quarry, getting into a position for a shot may prove a challenge. Remember to consider where the ibex may fall as well. In some instances, hunters have been required to hire a technical climbing expert to retrieve their ibex via rappelling gear when the animal became stuck on some vertical cliff face hundreds of feet from the canyon below. 

A mature male can weigh up to 150 pounds and stand 30 inches at the shoulder. Horn lengths of over 50 inches have been recorded for the billies, while lengths of 35 inches and above is a respectable trophy. Although the ewes have horns, they seldom exceed 10 inches. 

cow oryx Savage 110 Ridge Warrior
A nice cow oryx in the 37-inch range taken in NM. Rifle is a Savage 110 Ridge Warrior in .308 caliber.

It was over 40 years since I last set foot on the Florida Mountains to hunt ibex (when I was in my early 20s). I can assure you, it was a physical challenge even then. Word to the wise, be in as good of physical condition as possible. Back then, I hunted with the only rifle I owned — a Remington Model 700 in .30-06. Fortunately, I took a respectable billy. 

If I were hunting today, I would probably choose a flatter shooting cartridge in a lightweight rifle. The Christensen Arms Mesa FFT comes to mind, weighing in at 5.5 pounds with a wide range of chamberings including the new PRC calibers — 6.5 PRC or 7mm PRC. Last year, I used the Mesa FFT in .300 Win. Mag. on a plains game hunt in South Africa, and it performed wonderfully.

If you’re a bowhunter, you are in for the challenge of your life. Managing to collect any Persian Ibex with your bow is quite a feat. Few have succeeded, but some do. No matter what method you choose to pursue ibex, you are guaranteed to have a truly challenging hunt. 

Oryx

Oryx, or Gemsbok as they are known, were released in New Mexico by the Department of Game and Fish in the late 1960s and early ’70s. The animal is native to the Kalahari region of south-central Africa and offers a unique hunting experience for any sportsman. 

pair of Oryx in a more diversified New Mexico desert habitat
A pair of oryx in a more diversified New Mexico desert habitat.

Several options exist to acquire an oryx license in New Mexico. The first being the online public draw system via the NMDGF application process with dozens of different oryx hunts and dates being available. Most high-quality public hunts occur on WSMR, also known as big game unit 19 in south central New Mexico. Because this area is a military reservation, additional rules and fees apply.  

New Mexico also offers year-round, monthly hunts by the public draw system outside of the higher demand hunt areas of WSMR. These hunts are in place to keep oryx numbers in check. 

Private land over-the-counter licenses are also available to hunt private land only with written permission of landowner, but be prepared to pay a trespass fee. There are very specific laws and licensing requirements for these hunts, so do your research.

Hunting oryx is generally a spot and stalk approach, including lots of glassing with quality optics from elevated points of land and then making a stalk. Normally, oryx are found in a herd of a dozen or more, but it is not uncommon to find singles. When alarmed, you will observe tail swishing, their tails being not unlike that of a horse. Expect a quick departure by the animal when you see this behavior. Both sexes have horns that can be up to 42 inches in length and occasionally even longer. 

Barbary Ram Mauser M18
A respectable 28-inch Barbary Ram taken in the rough desert canyons of southeastern New Mexico via a .30-06 caliber Mauser M18.

You will need to rethink your normal aiming point that you would use on say, a deer, once you find an oryx in the field. Oryx vitals, in fact all African big game, lay further forward in the chest cavity, therefore if the quarry is broadside to the hunter, the target area is directly through instead of behind the shoulder. 

An adult oryx can weigh in the 400- to 500-pound range and are renowned for being tough to bring down if shot placement is poor. My recommendation is a larger caliber rifle along the lines of .30-06, .300 Winchester Magnum, or the like that you are confident with and shoot well. During a recent hunt, I took a nice bull using the Ruger .375 cartridge in the Mossberg Patriot rifle. Its performance was excellent.  

Oryx are a beautiful trophy with their contrasting black and white facial markings and long black horns. As an added bonus, they are excellent table fare. They can be quite challenging to hunt, especially in fringe areas of their primary range in southern New Mexico. 

Barbary Sheep

Barbary Sheep, also known as aoudad, have become a much admired and sought after exotic big game animal within the states of New Mexico and Texas. Barbary Sheep are native to several countries of Northern Africa and have been introduced as an exotic game animal in the American Southwest. 

Barbary Sheep in cave
Barbary Sheep, or Aoudad, are extremely adaptable and can show up almost anywhere. They like caves and overhangs to get out of the desert heat at times.

Introduced in New Mexico in the 1940s and ’50s by the New Mexico Department of Game & Fish and private landowners, aoudad can weigh over 300 pounds and are notoriously tough and agile. Preferring rocky and precipitous terrain where they often elude predators and hunters alike, they are extremely nomadic and travel constantly via mountain ranges and corridors. However, I have seen them down in flat desert regions consisting of little more than creosote and catclaw.

As with most big game hunting, quality optics are essential. Aoudad can blend into their environment incredibly well. You may find them one day, but they seemingly disappear by the next. the use of a spotting scope on the rugged canyon walls that these sheep like to frequent will not only assist you in locating them, but also to discern trophy quality. 

Mature rams sport a mane or chaps as they are known, that extends from the throat area down the chest and then along the front legs. A trophy ram will sport horns from around 25 inches to well over 30 inches, with some exceeding 35 inches in length.

New Mexico Mountain side
This type of steep rugged habitat in southern NM is just where Persian Ibex or Barbary Sheep might be found.

Licenses to hunt Barbary Sheep in New Mexico can be obtained one of two ways. First, via the public draw system conducted in the spring of each year. Or, via a private land carcass tag purchased directly from a license vendor. This option requires having written permission from the landowner and hunting only on the owner’s private property during an existing Barbary season, similar to some oryx hunts.

As to table fare, older mature rams can be tough. However, the flavor is very mild and makes excellent summer or breakfast sausage. One of my favorite rifles for aoudad includes the Bergara Hunter model in calibers ranging from the .270 Winchester to .300 Winchester Magnum, as you may find shots across canyons at longer distances. No matter where or how you choose to hunt aoudad, they are a challenge and a handsome trophy. 

Final Thoughts

All of these exotic species provide for a unique hunting experience that few would be able to experience if not for the public hunting opportunities found in New Mexico. I believe it has been one of the greatest hunting success stories for sportsmen in the last half-century within the U.S. 

For more information on hunting the exotics in New Mexico and how to apply, go to wildlife.state.nm.us.

Have you ever wanted to go on a big game hunt without leaving the States? What exotic animal is on your wishlist? Share your answers in the Comment section.


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