Bighorn sheep and Rocky Mountain goat the rarest game mammals in Oregon today, with less than 100 bighorn sheep tags and 20 Rocky Mtn goat tags offered in 2015. The tags are “once-in-a-lifetime” so hunters who draw them can’t draw them again.
While rare, Oregon’s sheep and goat populations continue to grow in number and expand in range, thanks to ODFW’s annual transplant efforts to supplement populations and increase genetic diversity.
Every year about 100 people draw a once-in-a-lifetime bighorn sheep or goat tag—some after applying on a whim. “People think, that might be fun, let’s apply, and by some fluke they get the tag,” said Tom Peterson with Oregon FNAWS (Foundation for North American Wild Sheep). “They don’t realize that they now have a once-in-a-lifetime tag on their hands.”
Here are some things to keep in mind when you apply:
Preference points play no role in the draw. For deer, elk and pronghorn tags, 75 percent of tags are awarded based on preference points. This is not the case for bighorn sheep and Rocky Mtn goat tags. Each year, every hunter who applies has the same chance of drawing.
Your physical condition (are you fit enough to hunt)? “You are going to be climbing mountains plain and simple; these animals live in rough country,” said Peterson. From the hot and dry sheep hunts in the High Desert to the uncertain weather found in the high peaks preferred by mountain goats, these animals live in the most challenging hunting terrain in the West. The Big Game Regulations even note that Rocky Mountain goat hunters “should be in good physical condition.”
Be mentally ready. Peterson calls the mental aspect even more critical and where hunters tend to have more trouble. “Hunters get out there and get in a rough spot, or the weather turns bad, or they have minor injury,” Peterson said. “They are not mentally committed to the job at hand and they give up and go home and lose the chance of ever filling this tag.”
Plan to attend an orientation and check in and out of the hunt. All Rocky Mountain goat tag holders are required—and bighorn sheep hunters, encouraged—to attend an orientation session before the hunt. FNAWS offers orientation for bighorn sheep hunters in partnership with ODFW where they go over maps and areas to find sheep, hunting ethics, marksmanship, survival and other topics. Bighorn sheep and Rocky Mountain goat hunters are also required to check in and out of the hunt at a local ODFW field office and have one sheep horn pinned (marked).
Consider access fees and guides. With some sheep hunts, including the Deschutes and John Day, hunters need to access private land to get to upper portions of sheep range. As with any private land access, communication with landowners is key. Some will require a trespass fee but even with the limited access hunts (red text in regs), there is always a way for hunters to get to animals through public lands. Most of the hunters for the Deschutes and John Day hunts choose to float the river to get to their hunting area. Peterson says most native Oregonians who attend FNAWS’ orientation seem to hunt without a guide, but hiring one to help you find your once-in-a-lifetime quarry is an option some take to be sure to fill their tag.
You can only draw it once—so, don’t keep applying once you’ve drawn. Sometimes hunters who legally can’t draw the tag, because they’ve already drawn one, apply for a bighorn sheep or Rocky Mountain goat hunt.
Hunters who don’t draw a goat or sheep tag can still take pride in how their dollars have helped recover these species in Oregon.
Extirpated from the state during the late 19th century, Oregon populations have grown thanks to ODFW efforts funded by hunting license dollars and the auctions and raffles of tags. Since the first California bighorn sheep were brought from Williams Lake, BC, Canada in 1954, the population has grown to 3,500-3,700 among herds in southeast Oregon. Northeast Oregon’s Rocky Mountain sheep have grown to about 800 since the first successful transplant of 40 animals from Jasper National Park, Canada in 1971. Oregon’s Rocky Mountain goat population has grown to an estimated 800 since five goats were transported from Chopaka Mountain in northern Washington to the Wallowa Mountains in 1950.
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