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How Arizona Hunters Angling To Take Down Bighorn Sheep Have Contributed Thousands To Conservation

 banquet hall
(Photo by Carrie Jung - KJZZ)
The bidding for the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep tag started out at $5,000 at a Scottsdale hotel. The energy level in the banquet hall intensified as the auction started.

The bighorn sheep is one of the few prized animals for hunters. In Arizona, getting chosen for a chance to hunt one is rare and can cost up to $2,000 for out-of-state hunters. When a tag gets offered up to the highest bidder at a local fundraiser, that figure can grow exponentially.  

The bidding for the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep tag started out at $5,000 at a Scottsdale hotel. The energy level in the banquet hall intensified as the auction started. 

There are only about 6,000 of the 200-pound animals in the state. The opportunity to hunt one of the four types of bighorn sheep is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Arizona has a lifetime hunting limit for these animals because of the demand. 

“I’ve been putting in for 26 years,” longtime hunter Rayne Rush said. “It may never happen. A lot of guys go their lifetime and literally never draw a tag.”

Rush is also a hunting guide with Sundowner Guide Service. Hunters who get one of these coveted tags pay him on average $10,000 on top of the money they spent at the auction to help them find and harvest a bighorn sheep. 

He said one of these hunts can involve as many as 20 employees. “We do a lot of scouting for months all summer long," Rush said.

Although most of the hard work is done in the months prior, Rush said the actual hunt is also physically challenging because of the rocky habitat and high mountains. 

“Some of the units are roadless areas, so there is a lot of hiking involved just to get to where the sheep live,” he said.

In Arizona, most of the sheep are in three regions: the Black Mountains near Kingman, the Catalina Mountains near Tucson and the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge near Yuma. 

“For some, wildlife hunting is a way of managing and controlling that population,” said Amber Munig, with the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

She manages big animals and said only the male rams are allowed to be hunted.

“For bighorn sheep that’s not the case. Hunting is providing a recreational opportunity.” 

The money from the auction plays a huge role in maintaining the population, she said. 

“The funding generated from the auctions are critical,” Munig said. “Our bighorn sheep program relies almost solely on the funding from those raffles and auctions.”

She said that money is used for conservation, translocation and population counts to keep it stable. One tag for the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep sold at the Scottsdale auction for $197,500.

Shane Rhoton, a resident of Fairbanks, Alaska, was the winning bidder.  

“I need this ram for my grand slam,” he said, referring to the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep subspecies.

In the hunting world, a grand slam means being able to harvest one animal from each of the four bighorn sheep subspecies. Rhoton, added he would have spent as much as it takes.

“There is always a limit in your mind,” he said. “But, the reality is, I live a pretty low-key lifestyle. I’ll spend as much money on hunting as I do anything else in my life.”  

He has an entire year to hunt with this tag.

The Arizona Game and Fish Department auctions off two of these special tags each year to the highest bidder. So far this year, two of these special hunting tags have brought in more than $575,000 for conservation.

Alexandra Olgin was a Senior Field Correspondent at KJZZ from 2013 to 2016.