The Oryx of White Sands Missile Range
About fifty years ago, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish wanted to establish exotic animal populations into areas that did not have huntable numbers of big game animals. The purpose was to maximize the hunting opportunities for hunters in the state.
Four species were considered and breeding animals were brought to the Red Rock Experimental Range. These included the greater kudu from Africa, the Persian ibex found in Siberia and Iran, the Barbary sheep from North Africa and the African Oryx or gemsbok (Oryx gazella). Because federal law prohibits the release of wild animals from a foreign country into the wild in the United States, only the offspring of the breeders could be considered for release into various regions of the state.
The kudu was determined to be susceptible to cattle diseases. As such, it was considered a threat to the ranchers’ herds in the state and was never released.
The ibex were released into the Floridas Mountains of southern New Mexico and successfully established themselves, resulting in hunting populations. You can learn more about the Ibex by reading the Guns and Shooting Online article, “An Ibex Meets The Scorpion.” The Barbary sheep was introduced onto the land near Picacho, New Mexico and have reproduced in such numbers that they have expanded their range over a wide area of the state and represent excellent hunting opportunities for resident and non-resident hunters.
Ninety-three Oryx were introduced onto the 3,200 square mile White Sands Missile Range (WSMR) in the Tularosa Basin between 1969 and 1977. They successfully established themselves and their numbers expanded enough to require hunting to control their numbers. In fact, the common saying among residents in the area is that Oryx “breed like rabbits on speed.” Their success has been so phenomenal that they have spread well beyond the missile range and the state now issues licenses for off-range areas every year. (These licenses are NOT once in a lifetime licenses). The reason for the Oryx’ success is they can go for long periods of time without drinking and readily adapted to eating the desert grasses, yucca, buffalo gourds, mesquite bean pods and tumbleweeds of New Mexico. (Tumbleweeds are also a foreign species – Russian thistle, but has been here for so long it’s become a symbol of the area!)
Each year, the state allocates a substantial number of licenses (500-600) for once-in-a-lifetime hunts on the WSMR. The hunts are for two days and are spread over a six month period from August to February. As such, if you want to harvest an animal, you can’t be too particular about the length of the horns, because if you pass up a shootable animal, you may not get another chance.
An Oryx can weigh up to 450 pounds. A full grown bull can stand 47 inches at the shoulder. Both sexes have horns, with the bulls having heavier rings, while the cows are frequently longer and thinner.
A couple years ago, Mary and I were lucky enough to draw a license for the October hunt. We prayed that there would be no snow and fortunately, it did not snow. However, it rained for two days prior to the hunt and was still drizzling at 5:00 AM on Saturday, the opening day of the hunt during our briefing by the WSMR range officers. After going over the safety procedures, restricted areas that we could not enter and range rules, we headed out to find some Oryx.
Shortly after 8:00 AM, Mary spotted a small bull running parallel to the road about 150 yards out. Someone or something had obviously spooked him and he was “carrying the mail.” She jumped out of the truck and fired offhand and hit him squarely in the shoulders, but he kept going. Dang, she hit that sucker with a 180 grain Nosler Partition bullet from a .300 Win. Mag. and he didn’t drop. (Shot placement is everything!) He crossed the road in front of us and headed up a hill and disappeared. His trail was easy to follow, as he was dropping pieces of bone, tissue and blood all the way. Talk about tough animals, Oryx are tough. If you want to be assured that they will drop in their tracks, you have to shoot for the heart, right behind the shoulder. We found the bull lying down on the crest of the hill and as we approached, he jumped up to run some more. Mary drew another bead and this time nailed him right in the heart. He dropped like a rock.
After dressing him out (in the mud), we began the long drag back to the truck. That small bull weighed in at 250 pounds dressed (according to the butcher). However, by the time we got him back to the truck he seemed like 1,000 pounds. It was definitely not fun dragging that dead weight through mud, junipers and mesquite. That was with two grown men, a strong teenage girl and my bride. Although a 28” bull Oryx won’t make the record books, my bride was all smiles, as she filled out on her once-in-a-lifetime hunt on White Sands.
After loading the animal into the back of our pickup, we resumed the hunt. We searched the rest of the day and never got a shot at another Oryx. However, Sunday would be another day and also my last chance to get an Oryx.
We were at the check-in station before dawn and there were only about half as many hunters as the previous morning. It seems that my wife had not been the only one to bag an Oryx. After the routine check of our identifications--after all, WSMR is an active military range--we headed out. We drove and drove. For mile after mile we failed to see an Oryx. I was getting pretty discouraged, as on the first day we had seen a lot of Oryx. Granted, they were far away, but nevertheless they were Oryx. Today, nada!
I was sipping coffee and staring out the window as my father-in-law drove slowly down one of the range roads, growing horns on every cactus plant I saw. Catching a glimpse of something brown out of the corner of my eye, I shouted for him to stop and back up. As he slowly backed the truck, there was my Oryx. A majestic bull, standing broadside on a knoll about 200 yards out. I couldn’t have had a more perfect target. Easing out of the truck, I put the crosshairs on the white spot behind his shoulder, squeezed the trigger and down he went. That Nosler bullet sure did its job. As we walked out to the animal, Susannah asked if I was going to reload. Oops, I’d forgotten in the excitement. I reloaded, but I knew that another shot wouldn’t be necessary. I’d seen enough animals drop to know when one was done.
He was a beautiful mature bull, weighing in at 400+ pounds with 37 inch horns or, uh, horn. Yep, I'd shot an animal with a broken horn. The way that he was standing, we couldn’t see the broken horn, but despite that, he was magnificent! The Clary Crew had a successful once-in-a-lifetime hunt. If you can’t swing a trip to Africa for gemsbok, I’d suggest applying for the hunts on the New Mexico WSMR. For a non-resident, they aren’t cheap, running a bit over $1,600, but for a once-in-a-lifetime hunt, why not? We only live once and the Oryx not only make fine trophies, they are better eating than elk, at least according to some. Mary still prefers elk.
A final note: You don’t need a guide to hunt the WSMR Oryx. They provide you with a current map of the hunt area and the federal Range Officers and NM Game and Fish Officers are happy to tell you where they have seen Oryx. They want you to be successful on your hunt; after all, these are hunts designed to keep the population under control. However, you will need a four-wheel drive truck with a good spare (or two). On our two trips, we have torn up a tire each time on pieces of metal from all the bombs and rockets that have been dropped. Obey any signs that tell you not to leave the road in certain areas due to unexploded ordinance, they are for real!
Copyright 2011 by Dr. Jim Clary. All rights reserved.