Bighorn Sheep Hunting: Beginners Guide

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There is unparalleled hunter devotion to bighorn sheep hunting, which has not been seen for other game animals. Chasing these massive creatures in the rugged and hazardous terrain they prefer makes hunters ignore all other outdoor activities.

Getting a taste of hunting the horned mountain sheep has seen many disciples gradually get hooked and turn into big sheep fanatics. 

The appeal of bighorn sheep hunting is partly based on how ironically rare the opportunities to hunt are. Demand outweighs supply for the extremely limited sheep tags, versus the animals and hunters available. 

The US government issues less than 1,000 bighorn sheep tags every year. Even the guides and bighorn experts who conduct these hunting outfits have never had and will most likely never have the chance to shoot a ram. 

What You Need to Know about Bighorn Sheep Hunting

For the mountain hunter, bighorn sheep hunting is one of the most mentally demanding and physically exhausting experiences.  You can be up against the northern heavily tipped bighorns, or the Northwest’s snow-white Doll.  Alongside the southern Yukon and BC ghostly stone, mountain sheep hunting will test your skills.  

The most seasoned bighorn sheep hunter still has their mental fortitude, and endurance levels stretched to the limit. Years of preparation and planning will culminate in a sheep hunt, representing many hunters’ lifelong dreams. That’s why bighorn sheep hunting is inarguably one of the most satisfying and rewarding experiences for a hunter.

Hunting the monarchs of the crags requires that a prospective hunter commit their energy and time into thoroughly researching to understand sheep hunting. 

Here is a definitive beginner’s guide to bighorn sheep hunting. It covers the essentials of what is needed to hunt in some of the most unimaginably rugged terrains.

What Species of Mountain Sheep are Bighorns?

The scientific name for bighorn sheep species is Ovis Canadensis. Much discussion has gone into whether or not the subspecies have enough disparity to warrant differentiation. Four distinct bighorns have relevance to a big game hunter’s perspective, and they include;

  1. California bighorns
  2. Desert bighorns
  3. Rocky Mountain bighorns
  4. Baja bighorns

Bighorn sheep hunting involves all these genetic subspecies, which comprise hunt totality and are present in game-worthy numbers.  

Discerning Bighorn Sheep Fact from Fiction

Hunts for bighorn sheep are usually guided and outfitted. Hunters prefer not to take chances with a once in a lifetime tag that costs most of them a year’s income.  A spot and stalk approach is the equation for mountain goat hunting, similar to any other big game.

The bighorn sheep are adapted to the rugged crags of mountain cliffs, down to their coat colouring which makes them almost invisible among the peaks and slopes. Akin to other wild herbivores, bighorn sheep are always alert, using their keen senses to evade approach.

Motor vehicles use stops at base camp, and except for a few mountain sheep terrains that allow using a horse possible, the legwork is in plenty.  Desert bighorns mainly present water shortage challenges, and you have to cover long distances to find a choice ram.

Good quality binoculars or a high powered spotting scope are essential to your bighorn sheep hunt. Check out our article the best binoculars for hunting. Also, make use of a lightweight, accurate rifle to take sniping shots.

The Unique Attributes of Bighorn Sheep

Dozens of sheep species and subspecies exist for the bighorn variety of mountain goats. While the largest populations of bighorn sheep are found in central Asia, North American variants are considered four.

Headquartered in Montana, the Wild Sheep Foundation classifies the four primary bighorn sheep varieties in northern America as; 

  • The rocky mountain bighorn sheep
  • The desert bighorn sheep in México and the US southwest
  • Dall’s sheep in British Columbia, the Yukon, Alaska, and northern territories
  • Stones Sheep in the Yukon and British Columbia
  • Sierra Nevada bighorn

For stones and Dall’s sheep, hunters consider them thin-horns as opposed to bighorns. Keep the Sierra Nevada bighorn out of your hunting menu. Their numbers are in hundreds and it’s under federal protection.

Two hundred years ago, an estmate shows that millions of bighorn sheep roamed the continent. Their population dwindled to tens of thousands by 1950 when later squeezed out of pastureland by humans. Bighorn sheep populations also took a hit from decimation by livestock diseases carried in by their domesticated cousins.

By significantly limiting bighorn sheep activities, conservation efforts have been able to redeem the species, often through herd transplantation. A wild estimate numbers current North American bighorn populations at over 200,000 sheep.

Finding Conservation Worth in Bighorn Sheep Game Hunting 

The US alone has over 10 million big game hunters, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. Only a fraction of present bighorn sheep populations are hunted annually, a figure estimated close to 2,500 animals. 

With these sorts of number disparities, bighorn sheep hunting is similar to Ferrari, making only 200 collector edition cars that everyone wants. Only the lucky few can get their hands on a bighorn hunting tag each year. Not even for hunters who’ve been bidding for years have the chance.

The trade surrounding bighorn sheep hunting tags serves revenue-collecting purposes. Participant states and the Wild Sheep Foundation, in turn, direct the funds to conservation efforts. Around $3 million is raised from the annual Reno, Nevada auctions from the sale of nearly 30 permits.

The WSF gives out over four million dollars to provincial and state game departments and Indian conservations.

Aside from the lotteries and auction revenues, donations also come in many forms, such as a three-mile stretch of reservation fence near where migrating bighorn sheep get hit by traffic. 

A catch 22 situation has been created by the rising numbers of bighorn sheep populations due to the success of conservation efforts. To cull old rams and keep down sheep populations in a specific area, some states are offering more lottery tags or hunting permits.

On the other hand, more tags mean that hunters stand a better chance of getting permits at lower prices, and wealthy buyers won’t offer the same astronomical amounts. This cost impact brings down the price of auction tags, hurting conservation effort budgets.

On the Hunt for Bighorn Rams using Expert Tactics

There is a regal stance to the powerful, mature bighorn ram, made more apparent by the massive curl of his horns. It could also be that their habitats, high towering ridges, and snow pasted rock faces that makes going for the bighorn prize irresistible.

Bighorn hunting, like with all big game, is synonymous with intention, resources, logistical support, and time. As the adage goes, there is no forgettable or easy sheep.

Sheep hunting has been elevated above elk, mule deer or moose hunting, and the American outdoors romantic appeal for rams is responsible for the high pedestal. 

Their Characteristics

Thanks to special skull sutures, bighorn rams can withstand blows to their heads that are 60 times the force that would fracture a human skull. Battling rams collide at a combined 50 to 70 miles per hour speed, and the impact outputs over 2,400 pounds per foot of energy. 

To a novice bighorn sheep hunter, this force is equivalent to more than 100 times the kick of the 300 Ultra Mag cartridge, which hunters dislike for its recoil.

Bighorn rams can absorb this force, as their skull sutures zigzag thickly to form flexible plates that compress when impacted. Pairs of bighorn rams go at each other during mating season, and battles have been known to last 20 hours.

While the back of the legs, belly, and rump of bighorn sheep are characteristically white, coloration varies from pale tan to northern mountain dark brown. Bighorn ewes nearly resemble barnyard goats, having backward curving shorter horns in comparison to their males.

Rams and particularly adults have gigantic horns and are heavily built, appearing heavily muscled and stocky. Their exceptional horns measure up to 3 feet long, curling to a complete circle from a 15-inch base circumference.

While bighorn ram will weigh anything near 350 pounds, ewes can grow to a conservative 200 pounds. During spring and summer, bighorn sheep feed on mountainside grasses, but these become scarce in the harsh winter climes of their preferred habitats. 

Rabbitbrush, sagebrush, willow and other woody varieties sustain the mountain herds through the freeze.

Bighorn Sheep Life, Habitat and Breeding  

Bighorn rams at ten years of age are considered fairly ancient, but ewes can live up to 15 years. The natural enemies of bighorn sheep are golden eagles, bobcats, coyotes, lynx, and wolves.

However, mountain lions stand apart as specialist predators for bighorn, manly by ambushing them in their precipitous altitude habitats. Livestock diseases transmitted from domestic flocks are the primary threat to the long term flourishing of North American bighorn sheep populations.

After a six month gestation period, female bighorn lamb in late spring and early summer. Bighorn breeding season lasts from mid-October to early December, depending on the elevation and latitude of their habitat.

How can Hunters Tell the Presence of Bighorn Sheep?

In the open rocky outcrops mixed in with precipitous canyons and ridged terrains, you’ll find bighorn sheep seemingly hanging on to the sides of sheer cliffs. Preferred bighorn habitats range from low and scorching deserts to high mountain plateaus or elevated hinterlands.

You can spot the telltale signs of bighorn residency below ridge tops, by their bedding areas that sit on the rocky outcrops. These cliff-side beds are spotted with goat droppings, set within a 4 inch by 6 inches by 1-inch depth into the mountainside.

From afar, you will also identify bighorn trails that are well used, visible where they traverse loose rock slopes. Appearing similar to rungs of a crooked ladder, bighorn rich habitats will have crisscrosses of these trains marked across the hillside. 

A well renowned red meat, bighorn is wildly exciting table fare, and this led to the near extrication of their populations by commercial hunters in the 1800s. Demand for the tender goat meat from burgeoning towns on the frontier almost wiped out entire bighorn ranges. 

Guidelines for Bighorn Ram Hunting

Following set guidelines towards bagging a bighorn ram ensures success and makes bagging your limited availability sheep tag worth the while. 

Whether you are hunting under the guidance of a bighorn aficionado outfitter or going it solo, remember that;

  • Bighorn rams are the largest in the sheep herd. You must, therefore, avoid shooting a younger ram when over-excited. Identify the biggest one by looking at many rams as possible, traversing your area with as many runs comparing horns and body sizes.
  • In order to maintain the herd’s virility, hunting the larger older rams is a mountain goat hunter’s custom that dates back to frontier days. To determine the age of the ram, count the rings of growth around its horns. A ram with nine horn rings is pretty aged in sheep years, while scarred noses or broomed horns are indicators of long life.
  • Bighorn ram horns that are broomed appear blunted by fighting, feeding, or rubbing against rock faces and similar activities.
  • When sighting a ram for good judgment, take the frontal view, as it allows a better view of how far the drop his horns have made below the jawline. You will also see the ram’s horn-tips and how far they extend. Use also s side, or profile view angles to assess the bighorn rams depth of curl, which helps you determine their size. 
  • Select a good-sized ram based on the circumference of his horns, and that his base mass is close to half or a third of the overall length. Compare the size of multiple rams before settling on your choice, as sometimes massive horns can give the impression that he is short.  

Bighorn Sheep Hunting Licensing 

While discussions on specific bighorn sheep hunting tactics are essential, it is critical to your adventure to get a bighorn tag. You can either win the raffle or pay for the once-a-year, once-in-a-lifetime bighorn hunting tag.

Paying for a bighorn sheep hunting tag is beyond the income capacity of hunters like you and I, as it requires anywhere between $30,000 and $400,000.

Bighorn Sheep Tag Raffles or Lotteries

Residents and non-residents of participating US states can participate in raffles or lottery draws to win the single sheep hunting tag on offer each year. With a less than 1% chance of the first-time applicant winning the tag, lotteries take place annually in; 

  • Oregon
  • Idaho
  • Montana
  • California
  • Texas
  • Wyoming
  • Arizona
  • Colorado
  • Nevada
  • North Dakota 
  • Utah
  • Washington
  • New México

There are limits to the number of tags that a non-resident can be given in most western states. This reduces the chances for outsider hunters way below 1%. Devoted prospective bighorn hunters still apply each year, to every participating state despite the depressingly low sheep tag drawing odds.

Returning bighorn sheep tag applicants are rewarded by many of these state loyalty programs. This brings some fairness into the lottery draws. An applicant who has been a loyal participator to state raffles for 20 years will earn preference of bonus points.

These points give a statistical advantage to a returnee applicant over the would-be bighorn hunter with less previous attempts. 

How to Get Loyalty Points for Bighorn Sheep Hunting

Inadvertently, states like Montana and Nevada round up your bonus points. This gives your application as many times the chance to draw one tag. Names are placed in a hat, and if your application attempts have earned you 26 points, your name is placed 676 times. This hat trick means that while a first-time applicant gets one chance. Your preference points give you an over 200% edge.

The 26 times that you applied for a tag represent 26 years of no success. This demonstrates that winning one is not a guarantee even with bonus points.

Some states outlined a certain percentage of the annual ration of tags to be given to maximum point holders. This was in an attempt to alleviate the lack of fairness. In Wyoming, the highest point holders get 75% of available tags, sitting currently on 20 points. 

If you applied in Wyoming as a first-time applicant, it means that only 25% of available sheep tags are on offer. Vying for this remaining percentage will be hundreds of veteran applicants who are yet to attain max-holding. Their names appear multiple times in the hat. 

Applying for a sheep tag as a non-resident in Wyoming is more daunting because your eligibility is 25% of available tags, meaning only 6%.

Bighorn sheep hunting lotteries are not cheap either, as states will require an upfront payment for the tag. They are then refunded after the draw. The main aim i mitigating the occurrence of applicants who’ve won the tag but can’t afford to pay for it. 

Whether or not you draw a sheep tag, a temporary $8,000 budget per year is necessary. Most states that admit non-resident applications will leave you out of pocket $600 every year you apply, with or without success. 

The Single Bighorn Tag Raffle 

Alongside the bighorn tag logger drawings that award tags for specific regions, and within specified dates. States also hold a single bighorn raffle.  This specially privileged tag offers expanded hunting regions and sometimes extended seasons.

The Nevada bighorn single tag raffle allows you to buy as many $25 tickets as you’d like. A tag is valid one whole year. Odds for drawing the single tag with one raffle ticket are low in Arizona, less than 0.01%.  

With your zero preference points and limited time, you’re better off investing in bighorn raffle tickets in Arizona. This is better than participating in the state lottery draw. Colorado’s single tag raffle holds better odd. Tickets are $25 with a maximum of 25, which gives you more than 1% chance of bagging the sheep tag.

Paying for Bighorn Sheep Tags

The mysterious appeal surrounding bighorn hunting is better displayed when it comes to buying tags. Despite the low chances of winning a tag, and the absurd amounts charged for auction bighorn sheep tags, clients of all walks of life invest without blinking.

Financial seems irrelevant when you consider all the downsides of unsuccessfully biding into tag lotteries or raffles. A better investment would consist of saving money to purchase a private sheep hunt or an auction tag.

For anything between 30,000 and 50,000 USD, bighorn outfitters in Alberta and México will offer sheep tags. They come bundled with guided hunt services. 

Are the Tags Worth it?

Tag auctions that take place in the US include Arizona’s apache tribe, which auctions a single bighorn tag each year. Hunting takes place inside their Native American reservation. Expect to part with between $20,000 and $30,000 for the apache tags. You can expect a lower price in consideration to the smaller-sized bighorns that roam the reservation.

Bigger rams are available to hunt with an auction bighorn tag, auctioned by some western states and Canadian provinces. These tags generate revenue that goes into projects for bighorn conservation. Ongoing projects include extensive research, battling disease transmission from domestic herds, and habitat improvement.

At one of the recent annual auctions held in Reno, Nevada. The bighorn tag for the following states fell to the hammer at the adjacent prices;

  • Idaho, $150,000
  • Washington State, $64,000
  • British Columbia, $275,000
  • Oregon, $135,000
  • Montana, $480,000

Without these astronomical amounts, out of reach for most hunters, faith remains in the lottery application process. You can crunch the numbers and see that time, coupled with bonus points. Have the best strategy for acquiring a sheep tag if you start early.

With commitment and resilience, beginning and sticking with application endeavors from your 20s should net you a bighorn tag or two within your lifetime. 

Summary

A set of bighorn curls on top of your mantelpiece or wall is not only an exceptional trophy but a reliable representation of American high-country symbolism. When setting out on a bighorn sheep hunt, selecting the largest specimen gives you the best set of horns for your troubles.

After winning a bighorn tag, at a state lottery, single tag raffle, or tag auction, chances are it’s the only ram you’ll kill for a long while. Targeting the largest, oldest ram also makes sound conservation sense, seeing as these animals are nearing the end of their at most ten-year lives.

Many hunter guides attest that removing the rams from a herd only rejuvenates the stock since these behemoths are past their breeding prime.

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