Jordan Phillips had trekked four days on foot and four-wheeler over challenging terrain in southeastern Oregon. Accompanied by her father, Matthew Kline, the 12-year-old was on her first hunt for a bighorn sheep.

Jordan shouldered a 15-pound pack, along with her .257 Weatherby rifle, through a wasteland of sagebrush and fluctuating elevations. They trundled down a steep canyon on the fifth afternoon, sometimes crawling on their stomachs to avoid being seen by the pack of bighorn sheep, which numbered about a dozen. Once she found an ideal shooting location, Jordan settled on a ram that featured an ideal heft and horn shape. Hunkering down next to Kline, 43, the young girl sighted the ram through the rifle’s scope. At a distance of 575 yards, Jordan, antsy with nerves, squeezed off a shot. The explosive bang echoed throughout the shale-strewn canyon.

She missed.

“I was so nervous,” said Jordan, who is a seventh-grader at Prineville Middle School. “I was really worried they would run away.”

A once-in-a-lifetime tag

Jordan is exceedingly lucky to have drawn a bighorn sheep tag — or permission to harvest such an animal in a designated area — as she did in June. Each year, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife organizes a lottery-like drawing for a variety of hunting opportunities throughout public land in the state. The chance for Kline’s daughter to win the privilege cost him about $140. These tags afford, quite literally, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities; hunters cannot win another such tag again. Of 21,775 people who applied for bighorn sheep tags, only 86 hunters got lucky. Jordan was one of only three to win a bighorn sheep tag in the ODFW’s White Horse Unit, which borders Idaho and Nevada in southeastern Oregon.

Jordan is one of about 57,000 kids in Oregon who hold youth hunting licenses. Some adult hunters, like Kline, enter repeatedly for the opportunity to hunt bighorn sheep and never get lucky.

Bill Littlefield, the president of the Oregon Hunters Association’s Bend chapter, has also had sour luck. Since 2000, he has applied each year for a bighorn sheep tag in not only Oregon but in Utah, Nevada, Wyoming, Colorado, Montana and sometimes Idaho, Arizona and New Mexico. Each year, he’s ended up empty-handed. Bighorn sheep and mountain goats, he said, owing to their small populations and the correspondingly scant tags offered each year, make them “two of the most coveted tags in the lower 48.”

In the lower section of the White Horse Unit, Kline watched his daughter’s initial shot through binoculars. He told her she was so close the bullet “parted the hair on the ram’s back.” He suggested she aim a little lower. When she fired again the bullet spiraled below the ram’s belly. The shots split the sheep into two groups. While the pulls on the trigger relieved Jordan of some jitters, she knew time was of the essence — the rams had now ducked out of view.

“She never lost her confidence,” Kline said.

With two bullets left in her magazine Jordan and Kline followed the sound of the rams’ hooves moving across the shale. When the rams reappeared 50 feet away, Jordan didn’t have a suitable place to rest her rifle’s tripod. Jordan’s father urged her to use his shoulder as a perch for the rifle.

“Tell me when you’re about to shoot so I can take a deep breath and plug my ears,” he told Jordan.

When the third shot rang out, the ram staggered and attempted to run before it tumbled down an embankment. Father and daughter were elated. Jordan cried “tears of joy,” the first time she had experienced the sensation in her life.

“It was amazing. It was crazy. I can’t really explain it. It was just such a relief I finally got one,” she said. The ram was lying down, yet it wasn’t dead. Jordan collected herself to send another bullet whizzing behind its shoulders, close to where her first bullet had also penetrated.

Conservation, aided by hunting

In the Western continental U.S. and Canada, the bighorn sheep population hovers around 80,000, according to the Wild Sheep Foundation. An estimated 170,000 to 190,000 wild sheep — which include three other subspecies — are spread throughout North America, with more than half found throughout Alaska, British Columbia, the Northwest Territories and Yukon, said the nonprofit. Since the first California bighorn sheep were brought to Southeast Oregon from British Columbia, Canada, in 1954, the population has grown to around 3,500, according to ODFW. Oregon populations benefit from ODFW’s conservation efforts, which are funded in part from the proceeds of the hunting tags. Other organizations, such as the Wild Sheep Foundation and Oregon Foundation for North American Wild Sheep, are also involved.

In preparation for their hunt, Jordan and Kline attended the nonprofit’s free sheep and goat orientation workshop in The Dalles in July. Available only to ODFW sheep and goat tag holders and their families and hunting parties, the nonprofit’s seminar touched on the mental, physical and technical demands of hunting in a remote area. The group recommended attendees ramp up their strength for multiday hunting treks by going on hikes and runs. They were also told to be ready to deal with the disappointment and stress of such outings, particularly if they do not find any sheep or goats. Nonetheless, after the presentation, the atmosphere was celebratory. Other tag holders congratulated Jordan, who grew to realize how lucky she was to have this opportunity.

“There were quite a few people who came up to me,” Jordan said. “One lady (who had also received her first bighorn sheep tag) talked to me for a while. As she was walking away, she turned and said, ‘Girl power,’” Jordan added with a laugh.

Kline applied for his daughter to secure a bighorn sheep youth tag in the White Horse Unit because he had accompanied a friend there 12 years ago on a similar hunt. He and his daughter drove down in an RV with friends, arriving a couple days before Aug. 19, opening day. The pair then spent two days stalking three rams, keeping tabs on where they bedded down at night. On the opening day morning, they lost track of them when they sprinted off to elude an unknown predator.

After days of trekking and camping, Jordan steadied herself to click off the third and fourth life-ending shots at the ram. Kline recorded a cellphone video of his daughter approaching her prize.

“He said he had led me through most of my hunt. Now it was my turn to lead him up to the ram,” she said. “It was just so joyful. I tried to hold its head up; I was like, ‘Ooh, this is pretty heavy.’”

She touched the ram’s horns, which were alternatively rough and smooth. Each horn was splintered at the end where the ram had “broomed” it, which is something rams do to wear down excess horn from blocking their peripheral vision. Kline took charge of the field dressing. Jordan held the legs while Kline removed the guts, which had been ruptured by one of Jordan’s bullets.

“We had to pick the berries and grass out of him,” Jordan said.

Two others who had previously tipped off Jordan and Kline to the bighorn sheeps’ location, helped carry the 80 pounds of meat out from the canyon and to their four-wheelers. The process took four hours and lasted until sundown. Jordan carried the ram’s 60-pound head — horns and all — on her 20-pound pack. It was a daunting task for a 90-pound preteen. A local taxidermist is persevering the ram’s hide and horns, which father and daughter will mount in their home.

“(To be back after a successful hunt) was a relief and exciting. It was just really joyful for everybody,” Jordan said. “We were definitely happy we didn’t have to wake up at three in the morning to go out again.”

A family affair

Kline shared in his daughter’s satisfaction.

“Hunting is a family thing. You may not all go out in the woods together, but you’re camping together. It’s a way to stay together,” said Kline, who has hunted since he was Jordan’s age. “When I was a kid, my uncles would go, my grandpa would go. No matter where you lived, you always showed up for hunting season.”

Jordan said she was thankful to her father for imparting his expertise on such an unforgettable hunt.

Kline still marvels at the experience.

“The bighorn sheep tag is an impossible tag to draw. I’ve been trying to draw one since I was 12 years old,” he said. “Even though I didn’t carry a rifle of my own, and I didn’t pull the trigger, this hunt with Jordan was the most satisfying hunt I’ve ever been on.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7816, pmadsen@bendbulletin.com

18149153