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WSF and SITKA Team Up for Aoudad Research

December 7, 2021
posted in: News

Bozeman, Montana. December 3, 2021. The Wild Sheep Foundation (WSF) today welcomed SITKA and the support of the company's Ecosystem Grants program to a critical research project on aoudad.

Aoudad, endemic to the Atlas Mountains of Northern Africa, are a non-native species first introduced in North America in the early 1900s and now range in the mountainous areas of southern California, New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico. The purpose of the research is to investigate density-dependent competition among desert bighorn, aoudad, and mule deer to develop achievable management targets.

"Aoudad were brought to North America at a time when native game populations, particularly white-tailed deer, were at their lowest, or non-existent," said Clay Brewer, WSF Conservation Director, and Bighorn Sheep Program Lead. "They are now a prolific and valuable game species but do represent a challenge to native habitats and wildlife. We need to know more so we can chart best management practices on shared landscapes. Naturally, WSF's concern is for disease-sensitive desert bighorn sheep populations."

This new research will expand on previous work to better identify the preferred habitat of desert bighorn sheep and provide the first region-wide assessment of the preferred habitat of aoudad and mule deer. The goal is to identify key areas for targeted management of disease and potential competition. 

According to Justin French, Research Scientist of Borderlands Research Institute, "By identifying density-dependence in each species' niche, managers can project whether desert bighorn sheep and mule deer can behaviorally adapt to aoudad presence, under a worst-case scenario of competitive exclusion. We will then project whether enough habitat exists to support viable desert bighorn sheep populations under the worst-case scenario across the region."

Aoudad are generalists, which means they are incredibly adaptable and can live just about anywhere. They have a wide range of feeding habits that can and do shift at any time. Aoudad are larger in body size and are more aggressive than desert bighorn sheep and mule deer, which means they can outcompete native wildlife. They also have a resistance to natural enemies, including predators and disease, and have several reproductive advantages over bighorn sheep. 

"Our customers are avid sportsmen and women, but also very conservation and ecologically aware," said Charles Post Ecosystem Marketing Manager for SITKA. "Desert bighorn sheep, mule deer, and aoudad are treasured big game species, with aoudad being more of a newcomer. Hunting opportunity is hunting opportunity, but if another species is paying the price, we all better know the best way forward for these species, the habitats that support them, and people. This is new and critical research SITKA is proud to support."

The research being done collaboratively between the Borderlands Research Institute (Sul Ross State University), Texas Tech University, Texas Parks and Wildlife, the Wild Sheep Foundation, SITKA Eco System Grants, and private and public land stakeholders.

"Having this list of partners speaks volumes for the importance of this work," Brewer concluded. "Once we're able to project how disease hot-spots may change on the landscape, this will allow management actions to track disease issues through space and time. We'll also be able to identify what levels of aoudad abundance are tolerable under different circumstances. This information will allow managers to set aoudad population targets that are more logistically feasible and potentially agreeable to stakeholders than eradication."

The next step will be a "Bighorn Sheep-Aoudad Symposium" in April 2022 to present research findings and management solutions to state wildlife agencies and managers across the West while presenting the importance of aoudad hunting to landowners and others.  

The Wild Sheep Foundation (WSF), based in Bozeman, Mont., was founded in 1977 by wild sheep conservationists and enthusiasts. With a membership of more than 10,000 worldwide, WSF is the premier advocate for wild sheep and other mountain wildlife and their habitats. WSF has raised and expended more than $135 million on wild sheep habitat and population enhancements, education, and conservation advocacy programs in North America, Europe, and Asia to “Put and Keep Wild Sheep on the Mountain®.” These and other efforts have increased bighorn sheep populations in North America from historic lows in the 1950-60s of 25,000 to more than 85,000 today.

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