Three strikes for sheep


This past week I received my annual call from Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks to check in on how hunters did hunting certain species.  How many days in the field, how many animals seen, how many animals killed, and where are all relevant questions for future planning.  I’ve become accustomed to these calls, I look forward to them as an opportunity to contribute to the cause of sound wildlife management, and I dread them because this is the third year in a row I’ve had a bighorn sheep tag which I have not filled.  The repetition of failure with a keynote species and a fairly hard to come by hunting opportunity has certain stuck in my brain, in a way I’m hard pressed to call pleasant.

To review:

In 2014 I had an Unlimited tag in district 300.  Due to weather and other plans I only had 48 hours to hunt.  I saw some sheep on two different occasions, glassed a lot, walked around too much, but was satisfied with my effort and learning, especially because no one killed a legal ram in that unit that year.

In 2015 I did not draw a ewe tag, but did purchase an over the counter tag for the Tendoy deprivation hunt.  This was an enlightening experience in many ways, I’d never seen that much hunting pressure anywhere, but the individual human interactions could not have shown humanity in any better light.  My biggest takeaway was that I needed to add archery to my range of skills in the name of future opportunity.

This year I did draw a ewe tag, or was given one after someone else did and turned the opportunity back in.  I had a great trip in snowy conditions, but had waited (through some perfect September weather) too long, and the sheep had gone.  The plan had been to go back later.  We did swing through on the way home from scouting homes in Colorado, but rain and fog had set in and glassing seemed pointless.  Once we did move down here there was a week of the season left, the weather was fine here in the desert, driving so far and leaving my family behind seemed unappealing, but most of all hunting them close to the road on winter range was just not the sheep hunt I wanted.  So I stayed here and went packrafting and mountain biking instead.


They’re failed hunts, all of them, by the only relevant standard of killing a sheep.  In each case I could have put in more time, and the first two years been more patient and hunted smarter, which might have made all the difference.  The practice of sheep hunting probably doesn’t live up to the mystique, but few if any contemporary hunters will ever know.  And that is what I regret the most, that I had several chances and am left today with mixed feelings about how I put them to use.

On the other hand, I’ve yet to regret holding fast and hunting on my terms only.  In the months before New Zealand we discussed using a guide, which seems like a worthwhile investment in certainty.  We didn’t, and instead got what I fully expect to remain amongst my top five hunting trips, for the rest of my life.  It may take another decade, or three, before I draw another sheep tag or choose to invest the time and money in another Montana Unlimited hunt.  What I am confident in, and would like to see more discussion of, is the extent to which buying certainty is rampant in hunting.  And the extent to which doing so creates a lesser hunt, and is perhaps, unethical.  It’s worth stepping back and wondering why, over the past thirty years, the American stereotype of the big game hunter has become so reviled.  It seems to me that the road-hunting, beer drinking, overweight trope has far less to do with cultural/aesthetic snobbery than it would at first seem to, and more to do with an intuitive understanding that shortcutting the process too far and seeking ease too much is in hunting simply unethical.

Where that line lies will always be problematic.  I’d just like otherwise good articles like this one to discuss it a little more plainly.  For my own part, when I eventually kill a sheep I want it to be on my terms; hunting native sheep in big wilderness.



8 responses to “Three strikes for sheep”

  1. After 40+ years of big game hunting (and working 25 years policing big game hunters) it has become very clear to me that the hunt is what is important. “Success” is measured not in filling tags (although when we were a young couple and young family, most of our protein came from what was harvested in the field), but in the hunt itself. I probably spent more time elk hunting this past fall than any other year I can remember and never connected with an elk (very close a couple of times :)). Yet in all respects, this was a very successful hunting season- hiking in the morning dark and seeing a blazing asteroid streaking across the sky, seeing Montana’s smallest owl (Pygmy) and it’s largest (Great Grey) just days apart and less than 1/4 mile apart, watching a coyote mouse while glassing, seeing fresh lion tracks going across fresh wolf tracks, playing with a big mule deer buck only to be outsmarted in the end, being so close to the elk I could hear them and smell them, hiking out at dark and shutting off my headlamp because the moon was bright enough to make my way and knowing that in under a year I can head afield yet again.

  2. One needs more paid holiday time or a totally different job and in either case one needs to live near their chose game animal lives. That’s the bottom line. I keep seeing all this stuff on youtube of people going in and trying to go out quickly. If you have two weeks paid holiday and you have, I dunno, a normal life to accommodate, that’s nowhere enough to learn to understand the land, the animals, the weather. These things take time. The only people who seem to have more time are (1) pros and (2) local who are proper hunters (tons of people live in hunting country and hunt as beer swilling side of the road no safety on clowns. Being local is one of the conditions, not the only condition). Serious locals have time because, with the blessing of their families, they keep carving precious moments through the week that end up adding up to a lot of experience and knowledge. Going someplace one does not know for just a few days means is a relying on things other than knowledge and experience. Technology can in some cases give some shortcuts but is is not a silver bullet, and it does increase the costs a fir bit. If you need to justify to yourself spending the time and money one can see how the wrong kind of incentives come up fast and quickly steer the boat.

    1. If your standard is trophy critters, than I agree totally. Just like with any outdoor pursuit, to get into the top 5% takes serious investment which living away from an epicenter almost always precludes. If being 94% or below is good enough, I think smart, modest investments of time can get the job done. The research we did for the NZ trip falls into that category. Same for the folks I’ve know who live in AK but can come down to someplace like AZ and mountain bike at a high technical level.

      1. I do not care about trophies, but I do care about ethical hunting and proper ecology. I know deer and elk are drunk and stupid (try finding wild boars with the same amount of effort) so they are somewhat easy to find, but in an environment with predators and no extra winter feeding that is not a foregone conclusion, due to a much lower density. NZ being a good example of a place where game animals abound because they are not meant to be there in the first place — the ecology is sacrificed. I am not saying that hunting is easy in NZ — because it is not, at least in alpine condition, but I am saying that the same hunt where these game animals originate from, especially if the predators are still there, would be monumentally more challenging. Ignoring the idiotic comment of Ortega Gasset about hunting and killing (one could hunt a whole lifetime and bag nothing — that would still be hunting) I wish people really started to fetishise the knowledge and the skill way way more than the kill, the location and the size of the trophy. A primetime TV show on people working their way up to master tracker, maybe even is some wasteland behind a suburban parking lot. That’s where hunting is.

        1. I’m not sure the landscape of hunting TV is actually shifting, yet, but the potential exists.

  3. It’s hard to be familiar enough with an area in a short amount of time. I love to hunt elk in new areas I find it these most fun way .. but not the most effective way. In new areas I almost always find elk and chase elk but usually get bitten in the rear by a terrain feature or something else.

  4. I love to hunt,back pack ,fish, climb, mountain bike,ski, trail run, whatever. Just to be outside. Hunting is what I love to do most . When I kill a moose or caribou though I don’t feel that I a winner in an athletic event as the Mens Journal suggests. I feel humbled. As Steve Rinella would say say meat is the ultimate organic trophy. I cannot articulate what hunting is to me but it is not a sport or an athletic event. It is something far deeper than that.

  5. By the way congrats on your new position with Seekoutside. Have a 4 man teepee with stove. Will have a revolution pack as soon as I can offload my old frame

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