The blood orange rays of the desert sun blazed through the center of the canyon. Steep rocky cliffs towered above me, dotted with resilient purple prickly pear: a scene so magnificent I could hardly breathe. And then something wonderful happened.
From the top of the cliff, a movement caught my eye. I stopped in my tracks and pointed so my boyfriend would stop and look. Two bighorn sheep – a mother and baby – were perched on the rocks. They each took a graceful bound to the next boulder over – a move that would have been impossible for a lesser animal like me. I watched in awe until the sun set and I lost sight of them.
Before coming to Big Bend, I’d watched a documentary about the wildlife in the park, which briefly featured the Desert Bighorn. I felt incredibly lucky to catch a sight of this rare and elusive animal… until I realized that I actually hadn’t.
What I saw were not, in fact, Desert Bighorn: a mistake that was pointed out to me by a local the following day. What I saw was an Aoudad, AKA a Barbary Sheep, which is native to Egypt.
Aoudads were brought to Texas in the 1940s for the purpose of exotic game hunting. Some escaped or were let loose, and now the wild Aoudad numbers in Texas have grown substantially to an estimated 25,000 animals. Ironically, this creature is now rare in its native habitat of North Africa, though thanks to exotic game hunting they have been transported all over the world.
Meanwhile, the native Texas Desert Bighorn population has diminished. Unfortunately, biologists believe the two species are competing for food and water, which are scarce in the Chihuahuan desert. There just isn’t enough habitat available for both species to coexist, and so Aoudads have now been labeled “invasive.”
This means each fall Big Bend shuts down for an Aoudad helicopter hunt, as part of an Exotic Animals Management Plan. It makes me terribly sad to think of these majestic creatures being shot from a machine in the sky. I hope that the National Park Service has done its due diligence, evaluated whether this is really necessary and determined the best method of removing the animals.
I’ve been conflicted for some time about the concept of invasive species. There is a family of nutria that live along my jogging route (featured in this post), and I have fallen in love with the little cuties. I know that theoretically they are doing harm to the ecosystem. But in this case the ecosystem is the trash-ridden Dallas metropolis. Should we really be focusing on the “destruction” created by a couple cute little rats, or would our time perhaps be better spent on reducing our own devastating impact to the environment? Humans have done considerably more damage to this region than the nutria. You and I are members of the most invasive species of all!
I attended a volunteer event earlier this month, run by the Texas Master Naturalists. There is a grove of flowering buckeye trees in one of the natural areas in South Dallas, which is threatened by the invasive Japanese Honeysuckle. As a volunteer I was instructed to cut the vines and drag them to a giant pile at the trailhead. Later that afternoon, workers from the Dallas Parks Department were to collect the cuttings and burn them. While I was cutting and dragging, I felt that I was doing something good for my community. But when I returned home, I told my herbalist boyfriend about the project and realized perhaps the issue was more complicated than I’d imagined.
“Japanese honeysuckle has so many medicinal properties,” he professed. “You didn’t just throw them away, did you?”
I nodded, feeling guilty. I promised him if I ever encountered a project like this again I would let him know to come collect the cuttings in case they were valuable.
It made me once again wonder, what is the right decision when it comes to invasive species?
Some would argue that the best use is to eat them. There is an emerging group of people whose diets include invasive species, called invasivores. In Diet for a Changing Climate, Christy Mihaly and Sue Heavenrich argue that “invasivorism” is one of the best ways we can combat climate change and inequality. And it turns out that in many instances it can be quite healthy.
“Invasivorism could help rid ecosystems of destructive pests. It could also provide low-cost nutritious food for people. Harvesting invasive species requires fewer resources – such as water and food and human labor – than raising livestock for meat. Invasivores point out that, in addition, the meat of many invasive animals is tasty, wholesome, and free of the antibiotics and growth hormones that farmers often give to domestic meat animals.”– Diet for a Changing Climate
Many species that Americans think of as weeds and pests are actually culinary delicacies waiting to be discovered. Kudzu, which has engulfed the American South, turns out to actually be edible and nutritious. Wild boar, nutria, and brown garden snails are known for wreaking havoc on their ecosystems, but instead could be filling up our bellies! In Florida, iguanas and lionfish are examples of tasty critters that need to be eliminated. Bullfrogs are invasive anywhere west of the Rockies, and as any Frenchman would tell you, perfect in soup.
“When unfamiliar animals show up in new places, local people may not recognize them as food. This is true even when invasive species are valued as tasty treats in the lands from which they originate.”-Diet for a Changing Climate
I love this solution to the problem of invasive species, because it kills two iguanas with one stone. We are eliminating the destructive species, but not doing it in a wasteful way. It gives those in need an affordable source of food. Obviously we need to make sure that we are hunting and harvesting where the species already exist, rather than farming them; we certainly don’t want to exacerbate the problem. However, “biologists say there’s no need to worry about overharvesting invasive species. In fact… eliminating an invader can actually help restore ecosystems and native species.”
I was inspired by these words. Although I don’t hunt, I found a local family that does and sells their wild boar meat. I cooked a couple of decadent wild boar dinners and can wholeheartedly say the meat is delicious. I felt good about it until I saw a video of an adorable baby boar, and started to feel guilty. Maybe I’ll stick with vegetarianism.
Even though I have no desire to hunt my little nutria friends, I am interested in the plants I can find locally. Ethan and I went harvesting dandelions the other day to put them on a salad. Though considered a weed, dandelions are extremely nutritious. Additionally, we have plans to harvest some more of that Japanese honeysuckle and do something great with it.
There are a slew of caveats that need to be included here. You shouldn’t harvest plants from areas where harmful chemicals may be in the soil. It’s important to research ahead of time to know whether there are dangerous look-alikes. The first time trying a plant, start with a small amount and do it around someone else in case you have an allergic reaction. Know which part(s) of the species are edible and which are not. In general, just do some research and be careful.
Thinking back to the magical moment when I caught sight of the Aoudad and its baby, it’s still hard to come to terms with the fact that they are considered undesirable. They are very special creatures and deserve to be treated with respect. I hope that the National Park Service takes its responsibility seriously, and that somewhere, hungry people are gratefully making use of the meat these animals have provided.
Readers, have you ever eaten invasive species? I’d love to hear about your experience.