A Guide to Hunting Bighorn Sheep

A Guide to Hunting Bighorn Sheep

Bighorn sheep, along with their northern relatives the Dall sheep, inspire a level of devotion among hunters that is unparalleled by any other game animal.

After getting a taste of what it’s like to chase these massive horned creatures in their rugged and dangerous habitats, some hunters experience a fading interest in all other outdoor activities as they devote themselves increasingly to the discipline of being a “sheep fanatic.”

The irony, and part of the appeal, is that bighorn sheep hunting opportunities are extremely limited. The demand for bighorn sheep tags far outweighs the supply of bighorn sheep, and the animals are managed very conservatively. Less than a thousand bighorn tags are issued annually in the United States. Many guides and outfitters who specialize in bighorn sheep hunts have never killed a ram and likely never will.

Scientific Name
Ovis canadensis

There are disparate views on the subject of bighorn sheep subspecies, including whether or not the “subspecies” have enough genetic differentiation to deserve that term. But from the perspective of a contemporary big game hunter, there are four: Rocky Mountain, desert, California, and Baja. All of these occur in huntable numbers and comprise the totality of bighorn sheep hunting opportunities.

Bar Room Banter
A bighorn ram can withstand a blow to the head 60 times greater than what it would take to fracture your own skull. When two of the rams collide in battle, they often do so at a combined speed of 50-70 mph.  Multiplying that figure by the combined weight of the two animals suggests an output of 2,400 foot-pounds of energy.

For perspective, that’s 100 times more force than your shoulder feels when shooting a 300 Ultra Mag, a cartridge that many hunters avoid because of the kick. The rams can absorb this pressure thanks in part to special sutures in their skulls, which zig-zag more widely than those found in many other horned mammals and enable the plates to flex and compress upon impact. Sometimes, a pair of rams will fight for 20 hours.

Physical Characteristics
Coloration varies throughout range, from dark brown in the north to a pale tan in the deserts. The belly, rump, and back of legs are white. Rams and ewes both appear stocky and heavily muscled. Ewes have short, backward curving horns similar to a barnyard goat. Mature rams have exceptionally massive horns, curling to near 360-degree circles and measuring up to 3’ long with base circumferences of 15”. Ewes have body weights up to around 200 lbs. Rams can weigh well over 300 lbs.

Grasses in summer, switching to woody such as willow, sagebrush, and rabbit brush in winter.

Life and Death
Ewes often live to 15 years, but a 10-year-old ram is regarded as fairly old. Bobcats, lynx, wolves, golden eagles, and coyotes can all kill bighorn sheep. Mountain lions are especially adept bighorn predators, as they can ambush the sheep in the precipitous, cliffy country where bighorns spend much of their time. The primary long-term threats to bighorn sheep are diseases transmitted from domestic livestock.

Breeding and Reproduction
Bighorns breed from late fall to early winter, depending on latitude and elevation. Females will drop a single lamb between mid April and late June, after a gestation of 6 months.

Inhabits open, precipitous terrain with a mixture of sharp ridges, deep canyons, rocky outcrops, and sheer cliffs, ranging from cool climes in the high mountains to extreme heat in the low deserts.

Telltale Sign
Look for frequently used beds pawed into ridgetops and below rocky outcrops that sit above precipitous terrain. These are usually about 4’ across and 6” to 1’ deep and are usually ringed with droppings. Well-used bighorn trails can often be seen from far away, especially where they cross steep slopes of loose rock. Multiple trails will appear to be stacked up the hillside like off-kilter ladder rungs.

Wildly renowned as excellent table fare. In the 1800s, commercial meat hunters extirpated bighorns from much of their range in order to satisfy demand from burgeoning frontier towns. Suitable for all red meat applications.

Hunting Methods
Rather than discussing specific hunting tactics for bighorn sheep, it’s a far better use of time to discuss the ways in which a hunter might get a bighorn tag. These “ways” can be broken into two basic categories, paying and winning. The paying option requires a minimum of around $30,000 and a maximum of around $400,000, which is obviously far beyond the reach of the vast majority of hunters.  For that reason, we’ll start with winning.

Drawing a Bighorn Sheep Tag
The following states hold lottery drawings and/or raffles for bighorn ram tags that are open to residents and non-residents alike: Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, Utah, Texas, Washington, Wyoming. In any given year, the odds of a first-time resident applicant drawing a sheep tag in any one of these states is less than 1%.

Due to the fact that many Western states cap the number of bighorn tags that can be given to non-residents, there’s a 10% limit in Montana, for instance, those hunters face chances that are way, way less than 1%. While many devoted, would-be sheep hunters apply in every state every year, they still face depressingly low odds of drawing of a sheep tag.

Many states have incentive systems to reward the loyalty of returning applicants, and also to bring a degree of fairness to the drawings. When an applicant has been applying unsuccessfully for twenty years, it’s grating to see someone pull a tag on their first attempt. These are called “bonus point” or “preference point” systems. Typically, they serve to give unsuccessful applicants from previous drawings a statistical advantage over applicants who have made fewer previous attempts.

In some states, your name goes in the hat once for each time you’ve applied in the past. Other states, such as Nevada and Montana, will square your bonus points and put your name in the hat that many times, currently, there are Nevada bighorn applicants who have accrued 26 bonus points. In the next drawing, their name will be in the hat 676 times opposed to once for a first-time applicant.

That it’s possible to apply for a Nevada bighorn tag 26 times in a row without success demonstrates that bonus points hardly guarantee a tag. To further alleviate this apparent lack of fairness, some states mandate that certain percentages of available tags go to “max holders,” or hunters who hold the highest number of points.

Wyoming gives 75% of their sheep tags to the highest holders, who are currently sitting on 19 points. Thus, a first-time applicant in Wyoming is vying for only 25% of the total available tags, and he’s competing for these against hundreds of other applicants whose names are in the draw multiple times each but who have yet to reach max-holder status.

To further complicate matters, non-residents are limited to only 25% of all available sheep tags in Wyoming. So, in reality, a first-time non-resident applicant in Wyoming is eligible for only about 6% of the total available tags.  And these drawings aren’t cheap. Many states require you to pay for the tag up front, and then they refund your money after the draw.

This eliminates the hassle of having applicants who can’t afford to pay for a tag once they’ve won it. If a hunter applies for a bighorn sheep tag in every state that allows non-resident applicants, he’ll have temporary expenditures totaling around $8,000 dollars annually and permanent expenditures of about $600 annually even if he doesn’t draw a tag.

Raffle Tags
In addition to the traditional drawings, which award bighorn tags for specific date ranges and regions within each state, several states conduct an annual raffle for a single bighorn tag that carries special privileges such as an extended season and/or an expanded region. In Arizona, for example, you can buy as many raffle tickets as you want at $25 apiece for a bighorn tag that’s valid for the entire year.

The odds of drawing a sheep tag with a single raffle ticket in Arizona are astronomically low, about .019%. Yet if you’ve got zero bonus points and a limited life expectancy, you might be better off investing your entire bighorn budget into Arizona raffle tickets rather than in the Arizona lottery draw. You might do even better yet by putting your budget into Colorado’s raffle. There, an expenditure of about $600, tickets are $25 apiece with a maximum purchase of 25, will earn you a better than 1% chance of hitting a tag that’s good for all legal sheep units across the entire state.

Pay Options
While all of this information might make the pursuit of a bighorn tag seem absurd, it should also be taken as evidence of the mysterious appeal of bighorn sheep. It brings to mind a story told by Chris Denham, the publisher of Western Hunter and Elk Hunter magazines. He used to run a consulting service that helped hunters apply for big game lottery draws.

One time, a potential client who had earned millions of dollars as a financial planner approached him about sheep tag applications. Because of this client’s apparent fiscal prudence, Denham felt compelled to explain the high costs and long odds of the endeavor. After breaking it all down for the client, Denham said, “You see, it’s ridiculous.” The financial planner looked everything over and agreed. “You’re right,” he said. “It is ridiculous. But still, put me in for every state.”

Denham knows the world of bighorn tags as well as anyone, and he’s got a lot of well-thought advice for people who to hunt a bighorn.  When he considers the amount of money that you can spend over the course of a long and unsuccessful bid to win a tag, he wonders if a better strategy is to put your annual lottery budget into an investment plan and wait until that account builds up enough money to pay for a guided sheep hunt or to buy an auction tag.

Outfitters in Mexico and Alberta are able to sell bighorn tags (bundled with their guiding services) for anywhere from around $30,000 to $50,000. In the U.S., there are a number of auctions for bighorn tags as well.

The Apache tribe in Arizona auctions one bighorn tag every year for a hunt on their reservation. This typically sells for around $20,000 to $30,000, the relatively low price is due to the smallish size of the bighorn rams on that reservation.

If you want to buy an auction tag for an area that produces bigger rams, you should consider the “governor’s tags” that are auctioned by various Canadian provinces and Western states in order to generate money for bighorn conservation projects such as habitat improvement, research, and battling the transmission of domestic livestock diseases into bighorn herds.

At the most recent auction, which is held every year in Reno, Nevada, the Washington state bighorn tag went for $64,000. Oregon’s went for $135,000, Idaho’s for $150,000, and British Columbia’s for $275,000. The high-bidder for the permit in Montana paid $480,000.

If that kind of money is beyond your reach—and it most certainly is—do not lose faith in the application process. Garth Carter, the owner of a subscription service called Huntin’ Fool: A Guide to Western Big Game Hunting, has  crunched the numbers again and again, and he believes that time and bonus points make the best plan for getting a bighorn tag. If you get into the sheep tag application business in your 20s, he says, and you stay with it, you’re likely to win two or three bighorn sheep tags by the time you die.

Jay Scott and Darr Colburn, of Colburn and Scott Outfiters, on Judging Bighorn Rams

“You can’t eat an animal’s horns, but you can definitely appreciate them. For many hunters, a set of bighorn curls is the greatest and most potent symbol of America’s high-country wilderness. If you get lucky and draw a bighorn tag, you’ll want to make sure to harvest a large representation of the species that’ll look great on your wall or bookshelves.

“Chances are, it’ll be the only one you ever kill. What’s more, targeting the largest rams is a sound conservation practice. These animals tend to be past their prime as breeders and are nearing the end of their lives. We’ve used the following field judging tips while guiding many Arizona hunters who’ve won sheep tags through the state’s lottery and raffle drawings.

  1. “Remember, bighorn rams always look big! Often, hunters get excited too quickly and end up shooting a young, small ram. Try to look at as many rams in your area as possible in order to get a relative idea of what’s out there. It’s especially helpful to have several rams together in order to get a good perspective of body/horn size. Once you identify the biggest one, try to shoot it!
  2. “Harvesting older rams is a custom that serious sheep hunters have upheld in order to leave more virile sheep on the mountain. Try to count the growth rings on a ram’s horn to determine its age. A 9-year-old bighorn ram is getting up there in years. Broomed horns and scarred noses are other indicators of old age. Broomed means not sharp or pointed at the tips; rams will broom their horns while feeding, fighting, and rubbing up against their rough terrain.
  3. “The frontal view is usually the best when you’re trying to judge a ram. This allows you to see how far the bottoms of the horns drop below the jaw, and how far up the tips extend. The second best angle would be from the side, so you can determine the size and depth of the curl. Quartering angles are not nearly as valuable.
  4. “Mass, or the circumference of the horns, is hugely important when selecting a good ram. Make sure that a ram maintains close to its base mass into the 2nd and 3rd quarters of its overall length. But be careful, as the horns of a truly massive ram will sometimes appear short to the untrained eye. That’s why it’s vital to compare the size of multiple rams before selecting your target.”

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