Bighorns' Importance

Bighorns are one of the rarest hoofed mammals on the continent (Valdez and Krausman 1999). According to Valdez and Krausman: “Despite all of the efforts exerted toward their conservation, wild sheep face a precarious future. They are an ecologically fragile species, adapted to limited habitats that are increasingly fragmented” (1999, 22). In addition to being restricted to habitat islands with suitable escape terrain, special behavior patterns constrain bighorns’ adaptability (Toweill and Geist 1999). Toweill and Geist aptly summarize these behaviors and why they’re relevant to disease outbreaks:

“Wild sheep are habitat specialists, animals with a high level of home range fidelity. They not only do not disperse well or easily across the landscape, but populations depend—for their very existence—on transmittal of learned behaviors through successive generations. This kind of behavior, useful in a species which has adapted to a landscape that changes on the order of centuries, can be critically limiting to a population subject to large or wide-scale population losses, the sort of losses associated with disease outbreaks. In these situations, large-scale die-offs have become an all-too-familiar pattern to wildlife managers” (1999, 198).

Bighorns are also ecologically sensitive because they have low reproduction rates. Most populations grow slowly compared to other big game animals (e.g., deer). Lamb mortality is also often high (Toweill and Geist 1999).

desert bighorns along the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument


General Hunting
Bighorns often mean big money, which is a big reason unnecessarily losing them to livestock pathogens is a big problem. One of the clearest indicators of bighorns’ economic importance is the value hunters place on them. As Erickson states: “Bighorns have long been a highly prized trophy by sportsmen. This is as much related to the bighorn’s massive horns and rareness as it is to the difficulty for a hunter to obtain a license” (1988, 47).

Bighorns are popular, novel quarry that can provide once-in-a-lifetime hunting opportunities. For example, in Oregon, a person can only have one controlled bighorn hunting permit in their lifetime (ODFW 2003). Bighorn hunting in Arizona also occurs on a once-in-a-lifetime basis (AGFD 2011). In 2008, bighorn permits were “the most sought after hunting permits in Arizona . . . . [In that year], 9,017 individuals applied for the 93 available permits” (Wakeling 2009, 56). In 2011, one resident Montana hunter drew a bighorn tag after applying for over 20 years (French 2011). Furthermore, just the application fee for hunting bighorns can be pricy. For example, in 2011, nonresident applicants fortunate enough to draw a bighorn hunting permit in Montana had to pay a $755 fee (MFWP 2011).

hunters with Dall's sheep rams in Alaska, 1953

In addition to paying for the privilege to hunt bighorns, hunters often spend money during their hunts. Regarding the results of a 1991 bighorn hunter survey, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife states: “The average length of a bighorn sheep hunting trip was 7.1 days with 3.8 days actually devoted to hunting. Estimated average variable expenditures per trip was $1,164 [$1,966.37 in 2012 dollars] per hunter, excluding purchases of durable equipment, license fee, and tag fee” (ODFW 2003, 37; USDL 2012).

The Nevada Department of Wildlife explains a study they conducted on bighorn hunting economics:

“The Nevada Division published a ‘Survey of the Economic Value of Trophy Big Game and Deer Harvest’ in 1986. . . . This study queried sheep hunters about the amount of money they spent on their sheep hunts during 1984 and 1985. Costs included in this survey were guide fees, license and tag fees, fuel, equipment, lodging, food, taxidermy and miscellaneous costs such as phone calls and broken equipment. The current consumer price index was used to convert dollar values from 1986 to 2000. Based on this study and the current average days hunted, it was assumed that a total of 11 days were expended on travel, scouting, and hunting bighorn sheep. Based on these inputs, resident and nonresident hunters expended an average of $2,924 [$3,902.32 in 2012 dollars] and $10,077 [$13,448.58 in 2012 dollars] per hunt, respectively in 2000. Expanding these figures to all the 2000 bighorn sheep hunters, 159 resident hunters expended $465,000 [$620,580.57 in 2012 dollars] and 20 nonresident hunters expended $201,000 [$268,250.96 in 2012 dollars] for a total of $666,000 [$888,831.53]” (NDOW 2001).

Special Hunting Permit Auctions
Auctioning bighorn hunting tags has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for wildlife management and conservation. For example, at the annual Wild Sheep Foundation (WSF) banquet in 2003, auction prices for U.S. wild sheep tags ranged from $40,000 (Wyoming tag) to $132,500 (Montana tag). In 1997, the Foundation sold an Alberta tag for $405,000 (ODFW 2003). These amounts inflated to 2012 values are respectively $50,018-$165,686 and $506,437 (USDL 2012).

The WSF is a bighorn advocacy group. They sell hunts donated by outfitters and guides, but they have generated the most money by selling Governor’s permits (Heimer 2000). Starting with Utah in 1980, states in the western U.S. began to annually auction at least one bighorn permit. These permits have often provided buyers with special privileges (Erickson 1988). For example, the Wyoming Governor’s Rocky Mountain bighorn license for 2011 allowed its purchaser to hunt in multiple zones (WSF 2012a). Also, the Idaho Governor’s bighorn tag for 2012 allows its buyer to hunt in all bighorn hunt areas in the state, except for Hells Canyon (WSF 2012b). In 2011, continental U.S. bighorn permits auctioned by the WSF ranged in price from $72,500 (Utah permit) to $290,000 (Montana permit) (WSF 2011).

desert bighorn ram in California

While the WSF can generate huge quantities of money, there has been a catch to auctioning Governor’s permits (Heimer 2000). Heimer explains:

“When ‘Governor’s permits’ developed (see Erickson 1988 for a short history), huge sums of money were generated which reverted directly to state and provincial management agencies with ‘gentlemen’s agreements’ that these dollars would supplement donor state or province agency budgets for sheep management and restoration. Some states and provinces have abided by these agreements more than others have” (2000, 129).

“As a condition of Governor’s permit donations, typically 90% of this money goes directly back to the states or provinces that donated the permits to [WSF] for auction. The [WSF] function here is not administration or distribution of Governor’s permit money, but acting as a broker to maximize return to the states and provinces for their permits based on the network of bidders [the WSF] has created over the years” (2000, 133).

Consumptive Economic Value History
Bighorns were not always regarded as economically important. For example, in his formal remarks at the first Desert Bighorn Council meeting in 1957, Richard Weaver of the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) “noted little interest in California’s mountain sheep among individuals outside CDFG” (Bleich and Weaver 2007, 55). Bleich and Weaver also state: “California did not then have a full-time investigation or management program for mountain sheep” (2007, 56).

Heimer elaborates on why bighorns didn’t receive much attention: “I suggest the basic reason sheep management was never afforded a high priority was that sheep populations were virtually nonexistent when traditional wildlife management was evolving and its financial base was being developed” (2000, 131). Heimer goes on to say:

“Wildlife management requires money. In the United States, availability of money is linked to sales of hunting licenses. Because there were basically no sheep to hunt when the ethos and funding mechanism of wildlife management developed (75 to 50 years ago), early managers reasoned there was ‘no profit’ to states or provinces from sheep management. The investment in restoration before any profit could be realized was considered (if at all) a ‘long shot’ or poor risk. Consequently, revenue-producing species such as deer, elk, moose, caribou, bears, and small game dominated management’s thinking, and were established as high priority programs. The result was that sheep were generally ignored” (2000, 131).

Sierra Nevada bighorn ewe collared by wildlife managers

Much has changed—as is evidenced by widespread bighorn restoration and acknowledgment of their ecologic importance. Bighorns now receive special economic attention, especially from hunters (ODFW 2003). The Nevada Division of Wildlife (NDOW) emphasizes that “Bighorn sheep hunting is a legitimate and desirable use of the bighorn resource” (2001, 3). However, modern bighorn hunting is not always beneficial to bighorns overall, and poaching can be a significant problem, especially because of the uniqueness of North American wild sheep (NDOW 2001). NDOW elaborates on this problem:

“Bighorn sheep are a highly regarded and sought-after big game species. Within the big game hunting community, bighorn sheep have an additional, unique value associated with a hunter’s recognition for harvesting a ‘grand slam.’ A ‘grand slam’ refers to harvesting all races of North American thin-horn and bighorn sheep: Dall, Stone, Rocky Mountain (including California), and Desert. There is a need to protect them from a small segment of society that will go to extremes to harvest a bighorn sheep” (2001, 25).

A major organization, Grand Slam Club/Ovis, has even been formed to document “grand slams” and promote legal hunting and wild sheep conservation (Grand Slam Club/Ovis 2012).

Nonconsumptive Economic Value
People like bighorns enough to spend money on non-hunting activities related to them. However, measuring nonconsumptive economic values for wildlife can be difficult and subjective (ODFW 2003). The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) states that: “No reliable estimates are available for . . . expenditures of nonconsumptive use specifically for bighorn sheep in Oregon” (2003, 37).

bighorn interpretive sign at Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, OR

One specific example of bighorns with nonconsumptive economic value relates to a 1995 bighorn transplanting effort in Nevada. Cummings and Stevenson explain:

“The capture operation in the River Mountains was temporarily halted following a complaint to the governor’s office by a golf course and community developer. The protest centered upon the removal of sheep that were routinely observed on the periphery of the developing Lake Las Vegas Community and [thus, the protest also centered on] the loss of an extraordinary and unprecedented marketing advantage [provided by the nearby bighorns]” (1996, 41).

The BLM provides an example of bighorns’ demonstrating measurable economic value in Colorado. They state:

“Several viewing areas have been constructed throughout the West for the public to see these animals. For example, the bighorn sheep viewing area near Georgetown, Colorado, had over 32,000 visitors during the first 11 months of operation. The coin-operated telescopes at the facility generated $8,000 during the same 11-month period” (1995, 8).

The National Bighorn Sheep Interpretive Center—located in Dubois near the foothills of Wyoming’s Winder River Mountains—is an example of bighorns demonstrating measurable nonconsumptive economic value (NBSIC 2012b). In its first 19 months of operation, the Center hosted over 23,000 people, including over 1,000 students (BLM 1995). The Center is focused on educating the public about bighorns and encouraging conservation (NBSIC 2012a). However, they charge admission to view their exhibits and offer wildlife viewing tours (at $50 per person) (NBSIC 2012a, b).

The public (except for some domestic sheep ranchers) has generally held a high opinion of bighorns. Many people appreciate bighorns for their aesthetic value. The Nevada Division of Wildlife illustrates this by stating: “The sight of bighorn sheep leaping nimbly across rugged slopes elicits emotions that impress and inspire viewers. From primitive inhabitants to civilized peoples, a recurring theme in records kept on bighorn sheep is the strong sentiment elicited by this animal” (2001, 4).

Clashing Rocky Mountain bighorn rams in Wyoming

According to the BLM: “Mountain sheep are important to many members of the public, as evidenced by the amount of money they are willing to pay for the opportunity to see or hunt one of these animals” (1995, 8). Bighorns are the official state mammal in both Colorado and Nevada (BLM 1995). The Colorado Division of Wildlife states that bighorns “are among the most sought after watchable wildlife species in the state” (2009, 1).

Evidence for positive public attitudes comes from a study gauging Tucson residents’ perceptions of bighorns that lived near them in the Pusch Ridge Wilderness of Arizona (Harris and Shaw 1993). Of 184 surveys completed by homeowners, Harris and Shaw say that: “The majority (>66 %) of the homeowners were willing to give up their activities within [the Wilderness] for the long term survival of the sheep population” (1993, 18).

Additionally, regarding a survey measuring public attitudes toward Peninsular bighorns in California, McNeil et al. say: “The overwhelming majority [of respondents] stated that bighorn conservation efforts would either not impact their lives or [would] impact their lives in a positive way. These respondents supported conservation in general . . ., stated that sheep have aesthetic values, and hope that future generations will be able to enjoy the sheep” (2002, 8). Also, in reference to Nevada’s bighorn transplant program, George Tsukamato states:

“The general public has thoroughly enjoyed seeing bighorn return to their former ranges; however, not all people are happy with the program. Domestic sheep ranchers have openly opposed the widespread reintroduction of bighorn because they believe that the presence of bighorn sheep imposes restrictive regulations on their grazing use of public lands” (1993, 44).

Bighorns also have notably high value to the public in Montana. According to the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks: “Bighorn sheep are a special wildlife species to many Montanans and are cherished as both a trophy animal and species that fosters memories of wildlife encounters long remembered” (2010, 3).

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Colorado Division of Wildlife (CDOW). 2009. Colorado Bighorn Sheep Management Plan: 2009-2019. Edited by J.L. George, R. Kahn, M.W. Miller, and B. Watkins. Denver. http:// BighornSheepManagementPlan2009-2019.pdf (accessed October 15, 2011). [govt. doc.]

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Erickson, Glenn L. 1988. Permit auction: The good, the bad, and the ugly. In proceedings of Northern Wild Sheep and Goat Council’s 6th Biennial Symposium, Banff, AB. April 11-15.

French, Brett. 2011. Billings man shoots trophy bighorn in Breaks: Tags for rams difficult to draw. Billings Gazette. November 17. billings-man-shoots-trophy-bighorn-in-breaks-tags-for-rams/article_9e86ccc6-1130-11e1-aca4-001cc4c03286.html (accessed January 1, 2012).

Grand Slam Club/Ovis. 2012. The Grand Slam Club/Ovis Mission. /about/index.htm (accessed July 13, 2012).

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McNeil, Carrie, Walter Boyce, Jonna A.K. Mazet, and David Hird. 2002. Coachella Valley resident survey of trail use and attitude towards bighorn conservation. In transactions of Desert Bighorn Council’s 46th Annual Meeting, Palm Springs, CA. April 10-12.

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National Bighorn Sheep Interpretive Center (NBSIC). 2012b. Winter Wildlife Viewing Tours. (accessed January 2, 2012).

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