Not all the game is of the “native” variety. There are numerous Texas exotics wandering the landscape that we can hunt all year.
By Andy Olivera
Miles of 8-foot-tall high game fence jewel the roads of Texas.
It sometimes seems as if there were stretches of these tall fences going up everywhere, along every backcountry road or farm-to-market access. Miles and miles of high-dollar, solid-locked, welded, galvanized, H-braced, and pulled-tight high fence!
It is just a fact that Texas has more private-land ownership than any other state in the country, with many landowners vying to get more. These properties range from small parcels of from 20 to 100 acres, to huge ranches with tens of thousands of acres — the larger ones stocking exotic game animals from all over the world.
But I don’t care how tight your fence is, someone is going to get out. And that has been happening all over Texas for decades now, with free-ranging populations growing all over the state. Heck, there have even been zebras showing up in some Texas game cams in our southern counties!
These exotics are called “free range” because they can come and go as they please by jumping cattle and goat fences — pretty much just doing what comes natural, looking for food, water and mates. Since they are non-native, meaning they are not from Texas, for the most part free-range exotics are available to hunt year around. And that means you have a chance to bag them on your own property or on your hunting lease.
Getting to know more about what was once behind that high fence will help you get on one of these escapees, and that can make for a great Texas hunt.
BEHIND THE FENCE
Because exotic populations are localized and are found on private lands behind the game fence where their availability is limited to high-dollar game hunters, you may not realize just how many of these exotics are actually roaming around in Texas.
The last statewide survey of landowners, conducted by the Wildlife Division of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in 1988, estimated that number to be 164,257 animals of 67 different species of exotics, with some 90,400 animals confined behind fences and 73,857 animals free-ranging live in Texas.
It is further estimated that those figures have more than tripled in the last few decades. Most of the original exotic brood stock in Texas came from zoos supplying stock to private landowners, other zoos, and animal dealers. Perhaps the earliest releases of exotics were of nilgai antelope acquired by the King Ranch between 1930 and 1941. Those animals came from the San Diego Zoo and were stocked on the King’s South Texas rangelands.
During the same decade, blackbuck antelope and axis, sika, and sambar deer were also released. From the late 1930s through the 1950s, mouflon sheep, eland antelope, red deer, swamp deer, and many other species were released into the Texas landscape as well.
Approximately 76 percent of all confined exotics are found in the Edwards Plateau region, also known as the Texas Hill Country. The South Texas region account for the bulk of the free-ranging exotics — 59 percent of the statewide population total. However, that is changing with the increasing number of so-called high-fence game ranches all over central and west Texas.
The most common species of exotics in Texas are the axis deer, reported to be high-fenced on 463 ranches in 92 counties, and free-ranging only in an additional six counties.
The second most numerous species is the nilgai antelope with majority of the population in semi-free-ranging conditions on large South Texas ranches, high-fenced in about 25 counties.
Blackbuck antelope is ranked third among exotics in the state and behind high fence in 92 Texas counties.
Aoudad sheep ranked fourth and can be found again, high-fenced, on approximately 172 ranches in 68 counties. They are found free-ranging in an additional seven counties. The aoudad population estimate does not include the state-regulated aoudads that range free in the Palo Duro Canyon area. Those are protected and can be harvested only with a select permit.
The fifth most numerous species in Texas is the fallow deer, found behind high fence on 276 ranches in 92 counties, and free-ranging only in one additional county. Despite the “official” count, I’m sure there are more.
Sika deer rank sixth in exotic population statistics and are accounted for behind high fences on 210 ranches in 87 counties in Texas.
And as we all know, the European wild swine coupled with feral variations is among the most numerous of the non-native species. They cause millions of dollars in damage and are the ire of Texas ranchers and farmers across the state.
Even these “confined” areas are subject to jail breaks, with animals leaking out after fence fails. These animals simply push forward to low-fence areas, finding new range and new home bases.
Meanwhile hybridization or intergradation has occurred between some species and subspecies through both planned breeding and by chance. Consequently, there are free-ranging individuals that are atypical of the species, leading to interesting variations, big and small. Examples of that are mouflon sheep that have crossed with Barbados and other breeds of domestic sheep, and the crosses between swine and domestic feral swine — resulting in some very interesting animals!
Here’s a quick guide to the most prevalent exotics in Texas.
The “blue bull” is the largest Asian antelope and is native to the Indian subcontinent. Males stand 3 1/2 to 5 feet tall, weighing in as much as 475 pounds. Sturdy thin-legged antelope, the nilgai is characterized by a sloping back, a deep neck with a white patch on the throat, a short crest of hair along the neck terminating in a tuft, and white facial spots
A large antelope with very long straight or slightly curved horns, these beasts are built rather like a polo pony. They have a compact body with sturdy limbs and a short stiff neck mane. Their ability to survive in waterless areas is second only to that of the addax among the African antelopes.
IRANIAN RED SHEEP
The Iranian red sheep lives mostly in open, rough terrain at medium or high altitudes, where they inhabit rocky hill country, lowland and highland steppes, and rocky semi-deserts, as well as grass-covered slopes. They live in small or larger herds, and in the summer the older males live as bachelors or in separate, small groups. They may live up to 18 years.
Named for the unique shape of its horns, the scimitar-horned oryx is one of four species of oryx, straight-horned antelopes found in various regions of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. This endangered species is indigenous to the semi-arid southern edge of the Sahara.
An endangered desert antelope, the addax has exceptionally long horns that are prized by trophy hunters. Because of overhunting, fewer than 200 addaxes remain in the southwestern part of the Sahara. An addax can go weeks without water and can withstand an internal temperature as high as 115 degrees. Seems perfect for Texas, right?
Axis deer are originally from India and live through Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The axis coat is a pinkish-fawn color, marked with white spots, and its under parts are white as well. Its antlers, which it sheds annually, usually are three-pronged and curve out and up, measuring sometimes to 3 feet long.
A very agile climber and jumper, these sheep stay in rocky terrain, resting in shade during the heat of the day. It grazes and browses. Also called Barbary sheep, it has thick horns that curve in a semi-circle over the back, typically up to 22 inches long in a male, and 16 inches and slightly thinner in the female.
The blackbuck antelope is one of the most popular exotic game animals for hunting in the entire United States. This is the antelope that inhabits the open plains of India, Pakistan, and Nepal. The mature male has a black back, white underbelly, and magnificent spiral horns.
The sika deer also known as the spotted deer or the Japanese deer is native to much of East Asia. The color of their fur ranges from mahogany to black, and white individuals are also known and prized as trophies. During winter, the coat becomes darker and shaggier and the spots less prominent. They stand as tall as 43 inches at the shoulder, with males maxing out at a weight of 155 pounds.
This is a European sheep native to Sardinia and Corsica. Mouflon sheep have reddish to dark brown, short-haired coats with dark back stripes and black ventral areas and light-colored saddle patches. The males are horned and some females are horned as well, while others are polled or sport only a slightly curved straight horn. The horns of mature rams are curved in almost one full revolution. Mouflons have shoulder heights around 36 inches and body weights of 110 pounds for the males and 70 pounds for the females.
This is a small Eurasian deer known for shovel-shaped antlers on bucks. Adult bucks are around 36 inches in shoulder height, and typically 130 to 220 pounds in weight, with does a tad shorter: 30 to 33 inches tall, and 66 to 110 pounds in weight.
HABITAT AND MANAGEMENT
Generally, though Texas exotics have progressed positively and ecologically, complications have been few, even successful free-ranging populations have occasionally had difficulty with their new Texas habitat.
Nilgai and blackbuck antelope, and axis deer evolved in warm climates and are not fully adapted to withstand severe cold as they sometimes must during extreme Texas winters. Some die during unusually cold winters.
Aoudad have died from infestations of liver flukes, endoparasites for which the sheep are new hosts. Studies indicate that axis, sika, fallow, and nilgai are dominant competitors with native deer for food, and on some heavily populated ranges native deer are declining as the exotics increase.
There is major need for proper control of their numbers where prolific free-ranging populations of non-native species exist. And that is where the avid Texas hunter can help. Some ranchers and farmers in Texas welcome hunters to help manage herds of non-natives on their land. You just have to ask.
Finding a landowner’s information can easily be found with new applications like onX Hunt that provide the name, phone number and boundaries of the properties you might want to hunt.
The deer-farming business, as well as exotic game hunting, continue to develop in Texas with new commercial enterprises involving the production of brood stock, meat, and body parts such as antlers, which are sold as aphrodisiacs in Asia. Exotic meat for human consumption also is gaining traction in the United States, and is always popular in Texas.
We all are finding more exotic game dishes becoming popular in restaurants. Case and point is Arby’s selling a venison meat sandwich on promotion just this year.
ZEBRA TO ORYX
While you could run into almost anything in Texas from time to time, anything from zebra to oryx, the most prevalent free-range exotics that exist in targetable numbers and thus giving you reasonable chances of success are the axis and the aoudad. They are amazing to hunt and they are fairly common.
Sika, fallow deer, and blackbuck antelope are fairly common in some regions, but even in those areas, trying to find them on any given day becomes a very hit-and-miss proposition. At least that’s true in my experience!
The thrill of hunting exotics in our state is that you actually might come home with a trophy and harvest an animal that most other hunters will never experience — and without even having to leave Texas.