A desert bighorn ram crossed the steep, rocky opening with incredible ease.
I had struggled to quietly get within photo range without slipping and falling to my death for longer than I would like to admit. The ram, however, crossed through a much more treacherous spot with impunity-in seconds.
Seeing their ability to survive and thrive in such habitat is one of the things that draws men to seek out wild sheep-whether with a camera, rifle or bow and arrow.
And Jan. 15-17, thousands of sheep enthusiasts gathered in Reno, NV. at the annual Sheep Show hosted by The Wild Sheep Foundation.
It was my first time attending and I came both as a fan of wild sheep and a wildlife journalist wanting to get the story on what makes this group of people tick.
The fan was satisfied as soon as I walked through the doors of the Reno-Sparks Convention Center.
Anyone into wild sheep would be impressed with incredible wild sheep taxidermy displays and hundreds of booths ranging from outfitters specializing in argali hunts in Tajikistan to Colorado’s grass-roots Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society.
A melanistic desert bighorn taken in Mexico was of particular interest as well as a mountain-style display of wild sheep and goats from Asia.
Sheep hunting is not for the out of shape was evidenced by conversations with outfitters who start some of their hunts at upwards of 12,000 feet.
And it’s not for the out of work either.
While lottery-style draw permits gives the working-class man access to sheep hunting, much of it is a wealthy man’s game.
But that has come as a benefit to wild sheep.
Whereas whitetail deer can pay for themselves through standard hunting licenses fees due to their huge distribution and strong populations, sheep can’t survive through that model.
Auctioning off a portion of tags to wealthy hunters at banquets like those held at the Sheep Show funds a huge part of wild sheep conservation efforts. And whereas whitetail need studying and observation, sheep need an entirely different level of management.
Moving sheep from areas with high population densities to low and making sure they do not co-mingle with domestic sheep that can pass on the deadly pathogen M. ovi is incredibly expensive.
Without groups like The Wild Sheep Foundation which according to president Gray Thornton spent more than $6 million on conservation efforts in 2019 along with regional groups like the Texas Bighorn Society and Alaska Wild Sheep Foundation, sheep would be in real trouble.
Tags at these auctions regularly go more than $100,000 and some coveted tags like those for Montana’s giant rams have fetched more than $400,000.
The hunters with that kind of coin could easily hunt big rams with outfitters who have tags and spend less. But these hunters believe in conservation and don’t mind spending to make it happen.
The most impressive part of the event came at the beer reception for the Less Than One Club. It’s a subgroup of The Wild Sheep Foundation for members who have never taken a wild sheep.
More than 2,000 people attended this year’s event, shattering the previous record and showing an incredible diversity of people.
I’m a member and despite having traveled and written all over North America have never taken a sheep.
Neither had the lifelong sheep biologist who I sat with or the 28-year-old girl I met who dreamed of sheep hunting. Virtually very income level, background, ethnicity and state in the union was represented and everyone was truly excited.
And although I don’t have official demographics, I estimate a third of that room was 35 years and younger and half under 45. In the hunting world those are impressive numbers and they show hope for the future of wild sheep.
Enthusiasm for these great animals is not limited by age, income bracket or location. It’s universal to those who have somehow found a fascination with wild sheep.
Three Dall sheep hunts were given away that night in draws that had everyone on their edge of their seats. Asian ibex hunts were given away for the international component of this unique club that everyone in the room inherently wants to be disqualified from.
The day after the show, I drove seven-hour span from Reno to Las Vegas to attend the SHOT Show on behalf of Texas Fish & Game magazine. It was an incredible drive through stunning country with frequent “Bighorn Crossing” signs.
I had learned about a tract of public land with a good sheep population and hoped I would be able to photograph my first sheep in Nevada and by God’s grace and good information there was the sheep at the beginning of this story.
I could not help but think back to the Sheep Show and wonder if this beautiful, young ram would even be here without the love of those in the sheep-hunting community.
Just as I decided to head back down as not to spook the ram, he made his way down toward me.
He stopped about 75 yards away, highlighted perfectly by the brilliant desert sun and essentially posed while looking right at me. I could now make out a tag in his ear with a very easily identifiable number.
This ram had at some point been captured, documented and maybe even moved from another area to here.
That kind of management doesn’t come cheap and it does not come without people who believe in wild sheep management like the Nevada Department of Wildlife and The Wild Sheep Foundation.
The beautiful creature turned and headed back up the slope, this time journeying to the peak and over.
I left Nevada with great hope for the future of sheep and sheep hunting thanks to the Sheep Show and a deeper curiosity about Nevada and it’s three varieties of wild sheep.
More on that to come soon.
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