The son of a Chevrolet assembly line worker, Rick Smith grew up hunting squirrels, rabbits, grouse and deer in upstate New York, but the words of Jack O’Connor took him on hunts to far-flung reaches of the world tracking some of the most exotic animals.
Smith’s speech becomes faster and more lively as he recalls flipping through his uncle’s copies of Outdoor Life, Field & Stream and Sports Afield — any of the magazines that may have had O’Connor’s byline. He loved reading of the arduous expeditions in remote mountain regions by the legendary outdoors writer and, at the time, could only dream of going on such adventures himself.
“I read every single article he ever had,” said Smith, who now lives in Dallas and has a home in Santa Fe. “I was especially interested in the sheep hunting articles. They would take place in difficult conditions, difficult terrain, with not a lot around, and he would be out there for weeks at a time. He appreciated the more remote, more difficult hunts.”
O’Connor’s writings created a mystique around hunting bighorn sheep that has only grown since his death in 1978. Scarcity of hunting opportunities and a high demand for limited permits have resulted in these animals becoming the most highly prized game in North America.
Beating the odds
The vast majority of people who hope to hunt a bighorn sheep never will. The odds of winning a license in a draw in the Western states that have bighorn sheep are less than 1 in 100, in many cases far less.
But in some cases, the odds can be overcome by the highest bidder. And that money, often more than $100,000 per auction tag, has accelerated the restoration of a species that was on the verge of collapse in New Mexico and across the continent.
Smith, now 70, is a retired telecommunications executive whose career has afforded him the opportunity to live out his childhood dreams.
Smith has participated in 13 guided wild sheep hunts in the U.S. and Canada over the past decade and said he was just the 23rd bowhunter in the world to complete what’s known as the “Grand Slam” by killing a ram of each of the four main subspecies of wild sheep in North America — the Rocky Mountain bighorn and the desert bighorn (found in the U.S. Southwest and Mexico), and the Dall’s sheep and the Stone’s sheep (both found in northwestern North America).
For seven of the past eight years, Smith has won an auction to hunt a Rocky Mountain bighorn in New Mexico. He took his first ram in New Mexico at nearly 13,000 feet in the Wheeler Peak Wilderness, but most of his hunts have taken place along the Rio Grande Gorge near Taos.
In total, Smith has spent more than $1 million for those seven tags. Ninety percent of that money has been fed directly into the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish’s bighorn sheep enhancement program.
The program gets no funding from state tax dollars. It instead receives its support from hunter-conservation organizations and excise taxes on firearms, ammunition and sporting equipment.
While Smith understands there are people who don’t agree with killing these majestic animals, whose signature spiral horns can weigh up to 30 pounds, he said he and most of the other auction hunters have a reverence for the creatures they chase and are invested in preserving wild sheep across the continent for future generations.
“Some people don’t view hunting positively, and I respect that; I don’t question their ability to think like that,” Smith said. “But for most of the wildlife conservation efforts in the U.S. today, the money comes from hunters.”
The ‘Sheep Show’
The money spent on bighorn sheep has become somewhat of a spectacle in North American hunting.
Every winter at the Wild Sheep Foundation’s annual convention in Reno, Nev., an event known as the “Sheep Show,” about 30 wild sheep tags from state agencies, Native American tribes and Canadian provinces are sold in highly competitive auctions with the proceeds used to bolster conservation efforts in those regions.
In 2013, a Rocky Mountain bighorn tag from Montana sold at the Sheep Show for $480,000. It remains the record for the highest bid at the auction.
The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish has authorized two bighorn sheep “enhancement licenses” — one desert bighorn license and one Rocky Mountain bighorn license — to be auctioned at the Sheep Show annually since 2013. That was about a year after desert bighorn sheep were delisted as a New Mexico endangered species. A single Rocky Mountain bighorn tag was auctioned from 1990 to 2012.
The individual New Mexico auction tags have sold for between $110,000 to $270,000 over the last eight years.
“There’s only one type of person buying auction permits. They’re very, very wealthy,” said Brandon Wynn, a fifth-generation New Mexican and advocate for public hunting. “But those auction permits, they’ve greatly accelerated getting the desert bighorn sheep delisted from threatened species list in New Mexico.”
A ‘remarkable recovery’
Bighorn sheep were once abundant in North America, with estimates of up to 2 million in the early 1800s. Populations plummeted from the mid-1800s to early 1900s, primarily because of unregulated hunting and diseases transmitted by domestic sheep and goats. By 1960, the estimated population was less than 25,000.
New Mexico’s bighorn population experienced a similar decline and has been brought back from the brink. Rocky Mountain bighorns were extirpated from New Mexico by the early 1900s, and the state’s desert bighorn population dropped to fewer than 70 in the late 1970s.
In the 1930s, Rocky Mountain bighorns were translocated from Alberta, Canada, to start a new herd in the Sandia Mountains, and more sheep were brought to the Pecos Wilderness in the 1960s.
The state’s desert bighorn population has been revived largely through a captive breeding facility established along the Gila River north of Lordsburg in 1972 through funds from hunter-conservationist groups. Sheep from this facility, known as the Red Rock Wildlife Area, have been “translocated” to augment the size of existing herds and establish new herds in mountain ranges in the southern half of New Mexico.
Today, there are about 1,300 desert bighorn sheep across eight herds, and around 1,700 Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep across 11 herds in the alpine ranges of Northern New Mexico.
Eric Rominger tries to keep tabs on as many of those bighorns as possible, whether that’s by hiking in the wilderness or flying in a helicopter during sheep surveys.
A bighorn sheep biologist with the state Department of Game and Fish, Rominger has monitored and studied the animals in New Mexico since 1996 to determine what’s needed to help maintain and grow healthy herds.
Funds from the two auction tags, as well as from two hunting tags Game and Fish has authorized to be raffled off by the New Mexico chapter of the Wild Sheep Foundation, have been a boon for the state’s bighorn sheep budget, Rominger said.
Before the implementation of these four tags, bighorn license sales provided less than $20,000 for the department annually. Over the last eight years, Rominger said the four special tags have generated an average of about $440,000 per year.
This money allows the department to maintain two dedicated bighorn sheep biologists; fund the captive breeding facility; and pay for helicopter surveys, captures and translocations, veterinary disease testing, predation control and more.
The funds have fueled what Rominger calls a “remarkable recovery” for New Mexico’s bighorns.
“Since the auction sales began, the number of desert bighorn sheep captured annually has increased nearly tenfold,” Rominger said, “and without these funds, desert bighorn sheep would almost certainly still be on the endangered species list and may have possibly gone extinct.”
The most significant threat to bighorn sheep today is domestic sheep and goats.
“That’s basically the only big challenge that we have,” said Bryan Bartlett, president of the New Mexico Wild Sheep Foundation.
The domestic ungulates carry a bacteria that, if transmitted to wild sheep, causes pneumonia in the bighorns that is easily spread and frequently fatal. If not caught quickly, it can decimate herds.
The bighorns just have to touch noses with domestic sheep for transmission of the pathogen, so keeping wild and domestic sheep separate is critical.
Bartlett said some of the most important duties taken on by the New Mexico Wild Sheep Foundation are undertaking political battles on separation issues between domestic and wild sheep, and investing in research to learn more about how to fight the disease.
The success of New Mexico’s bighorn sheep program has created expanded opportunities for both wildlife viewers and hunters.
The state has one of the most accessible wild sheep herds in the world along the Rio Grande Gorge near Taos. An effort started by the Taos Pueblo in 2005 reintroduced Rocky Mountain bighorns to their native habitat in this region and the Department of Game and Fish added to the herd in 2007. Today, there are around 400 bighorn sheep that live along the gorge.
The number of hunting permits has also increased substantially as herds have grown.
Rominger said in 1994 there were just eight public draw licenses issued to hunt Rocky Mountain bighorn rams in the state. In 2020, 60-plus ram licenses and 78 ewe licenses were issued with hunting across 15 bighorn sheep herds.
The likelihood of drawing a public bighorn hunting license is still slim. Rominger said more than 16,000 hunters apply for the draw, and the odds to snag a ram license are about 140 to 1 for residents, 607 to 1 for nonresidents. The cost for a resident who draws a ram license is $160, while nonresidents who win a license pay $3,173.
Wynn, who has helped the Department of Game and Fish with sheep counts, has not drawn a New Mexico tag himself, but his son drew a youth tag in 2010 to hunt a sheep in the Pecos. Wynn went with his son on the hunt and the experience sparked an obsession with the animal.
“Jack O’Connor wrote about how their horns are like a diary of their life,” Wynn said. “They keep them forever. They get chipped from fighting, so they have a record of their life and their battles.
“Then where they live, some of the Rocky Mountain sheep stay at 12,000 feet in the winter, just feeding on the windward slopes where the snow gets blown away. It’s amazing to me.”
Wynn has since been on more than 20 hunts, mostly accompanying friends who know of his passion. While he hasn’t hunted sheep in New Mexico, he has drawn one public permit in Arizona and another in Montana.
On the Montana hunt last fall, Wynn spent 70 days scouring the Madison range northwest of Yellowstone before getting his Rocky Mountain bighorn.
Wynn doesn’t like the “pay-to-play” aspect of hunting that has favored the wealthy in some states in the West, but he acknowledges the obvious benefits auction tags have had for bighorn sheep conservation.
Taking measures to support bighorn sheep and preserve their habitats, he says, ends up benefiting everyone.
“If we’re creating conditions where bighorn sheep can survive and thrive, we’re helping the food chain, the predators and everything,” Wynn said. “By working for bighorn sheep, we’re working for the planet, for future generations, for all wildlife and for people, whether they hunt or not.”