Expensive hunting

California man pays $135,000 for right to bag bighorn sheep

Oregon hunting license: $29.50. Entry in state lottery for a bighorn sheep tag: $8.

A tag, for the lucky few who win the right to buy one: $122.50.

Wrapping one's hands around the horns of a wild sheep: Priceless.

Well, almost.

Kevin Small, of Bakersfield, Calif., bypassed the lottery last weekend by paying $135,000 — about the median price of a home in Redmond — for a tag at an auction in Reno, Nev. An out-of-state hunting license, worth $140.50, was included.

When the gavel hit the block, Small not only won the right to hunt one bighorn sheep in Oregon between Aug. 14 and Nov. 21, he also single-handedly paid for most of the state's bighorn sheep programs for the next two years.

The Wild Sheep Foundation, a nonprofit that sponsored the auction, will keep 10 percent of the price. The remaining $121,500 will fund bighorn sheep research and management in Oregon.

There are two types of bighorn sheep native to Oregon. Historically, Rocky Mountain bighorns occupied the northeastern corner of the state, while California bighorns roamed the rest of Oregon's east side. Both species live in rugged, steep terrain. In the 1820s, explorer Peter Skene Ogden hunted bighorn sheep on Pilot Butte.

As settlers moved here, they brought livestock with them. Domestic sheep carried parasites and diseases that infected wild ones. Grazing was poorly regulated, so domestic animals degraded some of the bighorns' habitat, too. And settlers over-hunted the wild sheep.

These factors combined to extirpate California bighorns from Oregon by 1915, and Rocky Mountain bighorns by 1945.

Beginning in the late 1940s, bighorn sheep were reintroduced. Today, Oregon is home to about 800 Rocky Mountain sheep and 3,500 California sheep.

“There's not very many rock piles out there that have the potential to support a sheep herd where we haven't put sheep in the last few years,” said Craig Foster, a wildlife biologist for ODFW in Lakeview.

In 1985, the state decided to auction off one tag per year to fund the sheep management program.

The state still issues relatively affordable tags, by lottery. But the odds of drawing one of last year's 97 tags were about one in 200, for example.

Foster said he has put in for a tag every year since 1982, and has yet to draw one.

“It's the only lottery I play,” he said.

Still, why pay six figures?

Small did not return phone calls. But Foster said that some well-heeled hunters pursue a “grand slam:” bagging one of each of North America's four sub-species of bighorn sheep.

As home to two of the four, Oregon is an especially attractive destination. And Foster adds that the populations in Oregon are managed so that every lucky hunter who draws a once-in-a-lifetime tag has a chance at a trophy ram.

When last weekend's auction opened, Foster said he felt optimistic. The Oregon tag had sold for $130,000 in both 2006 and 2011, according to Michelle Dennehy, a spokeswoman for ODFW. Foster said that items seemed to be selling for “above-average prices” that night.

The Oregon tag was one of the last items to go to bid, so it was almost 11 p.m. by the time it was offered for a starting price of $100,000.

Nobody bid.

“My guts were churning,” Foster said. “As a sheep biologist, I knew that what we can do for bighorns in Oregon for at least the next year was riding on that (auction) floor.”

The auctioneer lowered the price to $50,000. Someone raised a paddle and the bidding took off.

Four or five competing bidders quickly pushed the price past $110,000.

At the same event, a similar Montana tag sold for $480,000.