The crowd clapped loud and long, and the winner was congratulated heartily. He had just spent a small fortune on one sheep hunt.
The auction was held by the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep (FNAWS) at its annual convention. Last year, the auction took in $3.8 million, with much of that revenue coming from high-priced sheep tags. Other items such as art and outfitted hunts also brought in money.
Each year, many western states, Canadian provinces and Mexico offer one or more sheep tags to FNAWS and other groups. If you’re interested in bidding on one of those tags, you’d better be well funded. Few tags go for less than $50,000. That being the case, if you’re a Microsoft millionaire, or you purchased a few thousand shares of Pfizer stock before Viagra, a sheep hunt is guaranteed. That is, you can be high bidder in an auction.
On the surface, it seems you must be rich to hunt sheep. Even the cost of the outfitted hunt itself is commonly believed to be well out of most people’s range. But that’s not always the case.
Two Ways for Rams
There are two scenarios in which you can hunt sheep for about $2,000 or so. One of those requires that you be in superb physical condition; the other requires pure luck. But before you consider either option, remember that nonresident sheep tags run around $1,000–more in some states, less in others.
Montana is the only state offering unlimited sheep tags that you can simply buy across the counter, whether you’re a resident or nonresident. That’s exciting news, but there’s a hitch: those tags are available for five specific units. Four of them offer a total harvest quota of seven tags. When that combined quota is filled, the hunt ends. And in two of those units only one ram in each is allowed to be taken per season. The fifth unit has unlimited tags, but the season is only five days long. Hunter success in these units is extremely low because of the nature of the terrain and the uneven distribution of sheep.
According to Ron Aasheim, information officer for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the unlimited hunts are steeped in tradition: “We believe residents and nonresidents alike should have an opportunity to hunt sheep without having to count on a lottery. Anyone can hunt these units with or without a guide.” (Montana’s nonresident sheep tag is $478 and is the least expensive compared to other states.)
These are wilderness, high-country hunts; many areas are inaccessible even to horses. This translates to rugged hunting, considered by some veterans to be the toughest in the Lower 48. A few dedicated sportsmen will lug 80 pounds of gear in their backpacks and camp in the rocks. More than one hunter has thrown in the towel and given up after only a few days in such unforgiving, grizzly-infested terrain. I know of only one individual who consistently finds sheep in that remote country: Jack Atcheson Jr., a booking agent from Butte, Mont. (406-782-2382), who has spent a lifetime hunting big rams and guides a couple of hunters each year in the unlimited units. Those who can keep up with him usually kill a sheep.
Luck of the Draw
Other than the specific Montana units, the rest of Montana and every other state offer tags in a lottery or, in a few cases, a special raffle. Here’s where pure luck is the name of the game, though some states offer preference or bonus points allowing you to increase your odds.
If you’re a lucky soul and draw a tag, do you need to hire an outfitter? That depends on the area you’re hunting, the law and your willingness and capability to hunt on your own.
I’ve hunted desert and bighorn sheep where a 4WD would get you reasonably close. I won’t say these were easy hunts, because some strenuous hiking was required to locate and get to rams. On the other hand, tthere are a few easy hunts where good rams have been shot within 50 yards of a pickup truck.
If you’re a rugged individual and can walk and hike long distances, you can hunt on your own without hiring an outfitter. Most sheep country comprises public land; you can hunt all season and never see a “posted” sign. If you have horses and can transport them to your hunting unit, so much the better.
The laws that govern the area or state you’re hunting will determine the need to hire an outfitter. Nonresidents who hunt Dall sheep in Alaska must hire an outfitter. Nonresidents who hunt wilderness areas in Wyoming must hire a guide. Be aware that in Wyoming plenty of good rams live on national forests outside of wilderness areas where a guide isn’t required. All sheep hunts in Canada require an outfitter.
From a practical standpoint, a hunter who draws a tag will likely hire an outfitter, because a sheep tag is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in many states. If you draw one, you can never apply again. Other states may have a several-year waiting period before you can legally apply again.
The ram of your dreams might also live far beyond the highway, requiring some sort of access, usually on horseback. Finally, outfitters are paid to know where the game is; in that regard, you may hire one for his knowledge.
What all this boils down to is that if you aren’t a resident of the state where you want to hunt sheep, you’re looking at an expensive nonresident tag (resident tags are far cheaper).
There are no cheap outfitted hunts. Sheep hunting often requires plenty of gear, including horses in most cases, and outfitters charge accordingly. The cost of an outfitted hunt depends on the area, state or country you’re hunting, and the outfitter’s reputation.
This country is the only place where you can buy a desert sheep tag (other than an auction tag); the relatively few tags available go for $40,000 to $50,000. Outfitters normally charge $6,000 and up.
Bighorn sheep are hunted in several western states and Canada, with the most expensive tags being those in Alberta and British Columbia. They typically start at $8,000. In the U.S., outfitters in the Rockies offer hunts starting at around $5,000.
In Canada, Stone’s sheep are the most expensive, beginning at around $12,000, while Dall sheep hunts in Canada and Alaska are less, running $7,500 and up. Sheep hunting isn’t for everyone. Your bank account and physical condition will determine your ability to make this unique hunt. As Jack Atcheson Jr. says, “On sheep hunts, the hunter must rise to the level of the ram. There is no faking it here–this is a ‘for real’ hunt.”