PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – Some big game tags bring big bucks to biologists in Oregon. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is excited for what researchers can do with the $345,000 they’re receiving from a single tag sold at auction Saturday.
Don Whittaker is the ungulate coordinator for ODFW, meaning he focuses on animals with “hard feet,” as he says. He has a Ph.D. in wildlife biology and devotes much of his career to restoring, researching and managing wild animal populations throughout the state.
In the late 1800s, wild bighorn sheep were extirpated in Oregon. ODFW says their current populations are the result of reintroduction efforts over decades by the state and sportsman groups.
Whittaker said between the 1950s and 1970s, reintroduction was done “by hook and by crook.”
“There was no dedicated funding and sheep programs started with some biologists at the time working very hard to make things happen,” he said.
When the special auction tag was created in 1987, it provided ODFW with the finances to expand its efforts. Since then, Whitaker said Oregon’s gone from having only two herds of bighorn sheep to now having about 40 herds. He said there are more than 800 Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep in the state and nearly 3,000 California bighorn sheep.
Oregon’s bighorn sheep special auction hunting tag is sponsored by the Wild Sheep Foundation and is sold at the foundation’s annual Sheep Show in Reno, Nevada every year to the highest bidder.
The 2022 tag sold at the event Saturday for $345,000 to Stephen Bindon from Howell, Mich. That’s a huge increase from what the tag sold for in 2021, $210,000, and significantly higher than any bid made on the tag in the last decade.
The foundation auctions off several tags like this at the convention and the only one that sold for more than Oregon’s was Montana’s bighorn sheep auction tag, which sold for $360,000.
Whittaker explained that in Oregon, most bighorn sheep tags only allow people 10 days to hunt and cost about $100 on average. This special tag allows the purchaser to hunt for an animal for four months between August and November and allows them to choose where they’d like to hunt.
He said 100% of the proceeds received from the special auction team will go toward bighorn sheep management.
Surveying and supporting bighorn sheep populations isn’t cheap. Whittaker said it’s about $4,000 to catch and collar an animal and perform health testing on it.
He said regular season Oregon bighorn sheep tags only raise about $13,000 in revenue and that wouldn’t be enough to support the work they’re doing.
“We wouldn’t be able to be a leader in the Western U.S. in sheep management and research without this [auction tag] program. And I think the hunters that participate in it are willing to participate in it because they know that we do the things with what they provide us to work with,” Whittaker said.
He said the state is currently trying to prevent the spread of pneumonia in wild sheep throughout the state. He said they just captured sheep last week near Lookout Mountain and Hood River to evaluate the effects of the disease on them.
To those who disagree with the practice of big game hunting, Whittaker said he hopes they see the benefits of what hunting funding supports. He said the wildlife management funded by hunting and fishing licenses often extends beyond helping big game animals and can help animals who aren’t hunted as well, just by improving their habitats.
Since its creation in 1987, Whittaker said the special auction bighorn sheep tag has raised $3.1 million to support bighorn sheep research, habitat restoration and management. Special auction tags are also sold for deer, elk, mountain goats and antelope in Oregon.