The value of bighorn sheep tags offered at an auction by Washington, Oregon and Idaho dropped dramatically this year, owing in part to the disease that ravaged the trophy bighorn herd along the Snake River last winter.
The permits were among 15 wild sheep tags from 13 Western states and Alberta in an annual auction that raised $1.4 million for wild sheep conservation.
The auction was held during the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep convention Feb. 5-8 in Philadelphia.
The high bid at the convention was $300,000 for a tag to hunt a desert bighorn in Arizona.
Since 1977, the foundation has held the auction to raise money for bighorn sheep research and relocation projects.
Most of the money goes directly to each state’s wildlife agency. The foundation, based in Cody, Wyoming, keeps 10-20 percent to cover auction expenses and to fund projects that boost sheep.
For example, when the epidemic hit the Snake River herd last year, the foundation responded immediately with $20,000 to help evacuate and treat surviving sheep.
Subsequently the foundation has pledged to spend $10 million over 20 years to restore and expand herds in the Hells Canyon region.
Washington began offering an auction permit four years ago, attracting a bid of $100,000 the first year, followed by $67,500 the next year.
Last year’s auction was held shortly after the virulent outbreak of bacterial pneumonia hit the Snake River herd. The value of Washington’s tag immediately dropped to $55,000.
This year, it mustered only $35,000.
“We expected a low bid,” said Rolf Johnson, Washington Fish and Wildlife Department big-game manager in Olympia. “The disease took a heavy toll on Rocky Mountain bighorns, so this year we limited all hunting in Washington to California bighorns.”
The California strain of bighorn sheep is not as large or coveted as the Rocky Mountain strain among trophy hunters.
The auction permits appeal to high-rollers who have a soft spot for conservation and a yen for trophy rams. The permit allows them to bypass the poor odds - less than 5 percent - of getting one of the rare permits in traditional state drawings.
The auction permit also allows the bidder to hunt a longer season and with broader area options than traditional permit holders.
Alaska fetched $200,000 for its first Dall sheep tag offered for auction. The state should net about $160,000, enough to fund research for two years.
In the case of Alaska, however, the bidding wasn’t driven by the urge to get a unique trophy hunt.
Anyone can get a tag to hunt Dall sheep in Alaska, since there are relatively few areas with permit quotas.
“I can’t imagine a guided Alaska sheep hunt costing more than $15,000 at the maximum, and I know these guys know that,” said Ken Taylor, Alaska Fish and Game Department biologist.”I think this shows a real interest in conservation. I think it speaks fairly highly of those folks.”
Indeed, a hunter who paid $300,000 for a Montana bighorn permit in 1993, spent a month searching for record-class ram, saw dozens, but never shot one.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Bighorn bids
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