Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Ultimate Pursuit in Hunting: Sheep

For the herd of bighorn sheep, the rocky cliffs were a safe place, with 360-degree views and plenty of nooks to blend into the gray rocks. The ground was sprinkled with scat, and the air carried a scent like a barnyard. Thousands of feet below, the landscape unfurled into a smooth checkerboard of ranch land that stretched to the horizon. The only threat up here would be to newborn lambs, susceptible to being plucked away by eagles.

Crouched behind a stand of rocks last spring, Brendan Burns, a 38-year-old with a growing reputation as sheep hunter and guide, peered over the edge, careful not to be seen or heard. Wild sheep have acute senses, and when they spook, they bolt as one, like a flock of birds. But the sheep were not home. Amid the panorama below, Burns spotted a constellation of tiny dots in a faraway meadow. The horns gave them away.

“There aren’t a lot of circles in the wild,” Burns whispered. “When you see something curved — and they kind of shine, they have this kind of glow to them — you learn to pick them up. You just train your eye to it.”

He pulled a high-powered Swarovski scope from his pack and aimed it downhill. Eight years before, there were no sheep here. Then 21 ewes and five juvenile rams were transplanted to the Rocky Boy’s Reservation of the Chippewa Cree, which straddles part of the Bears Paw Mountains, an islandlike rise on the plains.

The herd quickly grew to 100, and 40 were relocated to South Dakota. It has again grown over 100, and another 40 are likely to be transplanted this spring, part of broad attempts to replant sheep populations that are a fraction of what they once were in the West.

“There’s obviously no coyotes around, for them to be that low and feel comfortable,” Burns whispered. “This is a nice day to be a sheep.”

There were more sheep on a closer ridge, but in this group, Burns counted 38, including 11 rams.

“That gray one in the middle is the oldest one,” he said. “We’ll probably come back and hunt him in the fall.”

A man from Michigan had paid $100,000 for the year’s only chance to hunt one sheep in the herd on the Rocky Boy’s Reservation. Burns brought him there in October, and the men traipsed through the steep and rocky terrain for days before getting themselves in position for a clean shot. The ram was 10 years old, with a scar on its forehead, a cloudy eye and several missing teeth.

Its massive horns and about 80 pounds of meat were hauled back to Michigan. In exchange, the Chippewa Cree tribe at Rocky Boy’s received the $100,000, which was used to fund two tribal game wardens overseeing wildlife on the reservation.

It is a paradox of hunting, rarely so conspicuous as with wild sheep: The hunters are often the primary conservationists. In 2013, a permit in Montana sold for $480,000, still a record. Burns assisted on that hunt, too, over 18 days in the Upper Missouri River Breaks. The result was a large ram, and hundreds of thousands of dollars that went into the budget of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.

“As far as sheep-hunting being a rich man’s sport, that’s absolutely true,” said Vance Corrigan, 84, who lives along the Yellowstone River in Livingston, Mont., and is one of the most accomplished big-game hunters in the world. “But if it weren’t for the rich man, those sheep wouldn’t be there.” (...)

“Some rich people are into yachts or floor tickets to the Lakers,” Burns said. “Some sheep-hunt.”

What they are not buying is an easy trophy. Sheep live in steep and treeless terrain, above the timberline in the mountains or in the rugged hills of the desert. Sheep hunts can take hunters into places few humans have gone, and can include weeks of trekking and stalking.

“For the true hunter, you can’t buy them behind the fence,” Kronberger said. “You have to climb the mountain. The fat, rich guy is going to have a much harder time. Anybody can kill a bear if they sit on the beach or along the stream long enough. I could take a guy in a wheelchair and get him a bear. You can go and get your deer, get your elk. You can’t do that with sheep. You have to go and get it.”

All that can be hard for non-hunters to understand. Those who have trophy rooms filled with a wide selection of mounts, like Corrigan and Kronberger, said that guests are rarely attracted to the sheep at first, instead taken by the more glamorous and fearsome animals. It is like a litmus test for hunting credibility.

“If I brought 1,000 people into my trophy room, almost all of them would go to the bears and say, ‘Wow, look at the bears,’” Kronberger said. “Only a few know to go to the sheep — the other sheep hunters. Half the time, people call the sheep a goat.”

by John Branch, NY Times |  Read more:
Image: Leah Nash