A hunter from Utah has raised the value of big-game hunting with a record bid of $480,000 for a special Montana bighorn sheep permit.
Selling coveted bighorn tags to the rich generates fallout from some hunters who’ve failed for decades to get a permit the regular-guy way – in a lottery drawing.
On the other hand, big bids for bighorns are a windfall for state wildlife biologists struggling to curb wild sheep woes.
The annual auctions for tags offered by Montana and other states, tribes and provinces were held at the 2013 Wild Sheep Foundation Convention and Sporting Expo, Jan. 31-Feb. 2, in Reno, Nev.
Wild sheep tags have been auctioned since 1980 at the convention to raise money for wildlife conservation. This was a banner year, with six records for the highest amounts bid for special permits. The 40 tags offered this year garnered a record $3.2 million.
The Montana bighorn sheep tag bid by Con Wadsworth of Draper, Utah, shattered the state’s record of $300,000 set in 2012. The “governor’s tag” holder has an edge with special privileges to hunt prized trophy areas with more favorable seasons than roughly 160 hunters who will draw ram permits in the state lottery.
This year’s Montana bid also surpassed the foundation’s previous record bid of $405,000 for a bighorn sheep tag, set in 1999 for the Alberta special permit.
In other auctions at the convention:
• British Columbia’s permit sold for $275,000, topping its record of $250,000 set last year.
• Oregon’s Rocky Mountain bighorn permit brought $135,000, bettering the $130,000 record set in 2011.
• Idaho’s bighorn tag sold for $150,000, down from a record $180,000 in 2005.
• Washington’s bighorn tag sold for $64,000, down from the record $100,000 set in 1994 before a pneumonia epidemic nearly wiped out the trophy herds near the Snake and Grande Ronde rivers.
Although this year’s bids for Idaho and Washington tags didn’t set records, the wildlife managers were happy with the bids.
“We are pleased that hunters are willing to support our efforts to conserve and manage bighorns in Washington,” said Rich Harris, special species manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
He said the money is used to study bighorns and to minimize their risk to disease while looking for ways to expand the state’s herds.
The Wild Sheep Foundation, which keeps an average 7 percent of the auction bids for worldwide programs, has pledged millions of dollars for research to help fight diseases affecting wild sheep in the Snake River region of Idaho, Oregon and Washington.
Montana also lost hundreds of bighorns to disease in recent years.
Since forming in 1977, the Wild Sheep Foundation has raised and expended more than $90 million on conservation, education and conservation advocacy programs in North America, Europe and Asia, foundation officers say. These and other efforts helped boost a four-fold increase in bighorn sheep populations in North America from their historic lows of about 17,000 from 1950 through the 1970s to about 70,000 this year, they say.
The auction bidders are considered leading conservationists. Certainly they electrified the atmosphere at the Reno convention as the price for the Montana tag climbed to heights experienced in North American hunting circles only by bighorn hunters.
“Three people were still actively bidding at $450,000,” said Brad Morlock, Idaho Wild Sheep Foundation president. “People were cheering as though it were a championship game.”
But to get a bid like that, a state also must have the product.
“We had pictures of the trophy rams available in Montana, especially in the (Missouri River) Breaks,” said Ron Aasheim, spokesman for Montana, Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “Every serious hunter who goes there gets a record-book ram.”
Montana also offers the same sort of bighorn permit in a raffle, but it generates only a fraction of the cash the auction tag brings in. All of Montana’s Super Tag raffle permits combined – bighorn, moose, elk, deer, mountain goat, bison, antelope and mountain lion – generated only $330,000 last year.
Morlock emphasized that being president of Idaho’s Wild Sheep Foundation chapter doesn’t put him in the ranks of high rollers.
“I just shook my head and beamed when I heard the bids this year,” he said. “But if I had the funds, that’s where I’d spend it, too.”
Those hunters could spend that money on yachts and beach houses, but they’re contributing it to bighorn sheep, he said.
It’s not as though bighorn hunting is a rich man’s game.
The bids and donations made by wealthy people have boosted wild sheep and made a lot more tags available to the average hunter.