Bighorn Sheep


Bighorn Sheep

SCIENTIFIC NAME Ovis canadensis
Bighorn sheep, along with their northern relatives the Dail 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 conser-vatively.

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.

There are disparate views on the subject of bighorn sheep subspecies, including whether what’s called subspecies have enough genetic differ-entiation to deserve that term. But from the perspective of a contempo-rary big game hunter, there are four: Rocky Mountain, desert, California, and Baja. All of these occur in huntable numbers and account for the totality of bighorn sheep hunting opportunities.

BARROOM BANTER: A bighorn ram can withstand a blow to the head sixty 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 a hundred 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 zigzag 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 twenty 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 the legs are white. Rams and ewes both appear stocky and heavily muscled. Ewes have short, backward-curving homs similar to a barnyard goat. Mature rams have exceptionally massive horns, curling to near 360-degree circles and measuring up to 3 feet long with base circumferences of 15 inches. Ewes have body weights up to around 200 pounds. Rams can weigh well over 300 pounds.

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

LIFE AND DEATH: Ewes often live to fifteen years, but a ten-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 do-mestic 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 six months.

HABITAT: 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 feet across and 6 to 12 inches deep and 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.

EDIBILITY: Widely 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 OPPORTUNITIES: Extremely limited. (See below.)

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 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. The following states hold lottery drawings and/or raffles for bighorn ram tags that are open to residents and nonresidents alike: Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Da-kota, Oregon, Utah, Texas, Washington, and Wyoming. In any given year, the odds of a fast-time resident applicant drawing a sheep tag in any one of these states are less than 1 percent. Because many western states cap the number of bighorn tags that can be given to nonresidents (there’s a 10 percent limit in Montana, for instance), those hunters face chances that are way, way less than 1 percent. While many devoted would-be sheep hunters apply in every state every year, they still face depressingly low odds of drawing 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 his first attempt.) These are called “bonus point” or “preference point” systems. Typically, they serve to give unsuccessful applicants from previous drawings a statistical advan-tage 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 as opposed to once for a first-time applicant.

That it’s possible to apply for a Nevada bighorn tag twenty-six times in a row without success demonstrates that bonus points hardly guar-antee 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 percent of their sheep tags to those who are currently sitting on 19 points. Thus, a first-time applicant in Wyoming is vying for only 25 percent 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, nonresidents are limited to only 25 percent of all available sheep tags in Wyoming. So, in reality, a first-time nonresident applicant in Wyoming is eligible for only about 6 percent 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 142 bighorn sheep tag in every state that allows nonresident applicants, he’ll have temporary expenditures totaling around $8,000 annually and per-manent expenditures of about $600 annually even if he doesn’t draw a tag.

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 percent. Yet if you’ve got zero bonus points and a limited life expectancy, you might be better off investing your entire bighorn budget in 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 $625 (tickets are $25 apiece, with a maximum purchase of 25) will earn you a better than 1 percent chance of hitting a tag that’s good for all legal sheep units across the entire state.

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. Be-cause 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 want 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 United States, 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 reserva-tion. 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 reserva-tion. 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 The 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 twenties, he says, and you stay with it, you’re likely to win two or three bighorn sheep tags by the time you die.


Darr Colburn (left) and Jay Scott (right) with a client’s nine-year-old ram that was the largest desert bighorn killed in Arizona in 2012.

“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 book shelves. 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 and 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 nine-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 second and third 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.”

Serious bighorn sheep hunters like to see a ram next to other rams so that they can compare the animals and get a relative idea of the selected animal’s size.