Many hunters regard sheep hunting as a rich man's sport. We can't blame them for thinking that when you hear about sheep tags being auctioned for anywhere from $60,000 to a mind-boggling $480,000, as the Montana Governor's tag once fetched. While it's great there's so much money being pumped back into wild sheep conservation from these sales, it's unbelievably discouraging as an average Joe. How can it not be when you realize there are guys paying more for a tag than we did our house? Auctions aside, the many draws for non-residents in states that have sheep hunting seasons can be equally discouraging when you hear tales of hunters who have entered the draws for 20 or 30 years with no success. Some bighorn sheep tag drawings come with odds so astronomical, you might have a better chance winning the Powerball lottery and then just buying one of those high-priced tags at auction! Before you give up on your dream of pursuing one of these majestic animals in the rugged backcountry of some scenic mountain range, just know there are options for more realistic sheep hunting opportunities here in North America. That's what we'll highlight today. And to be clear, some of these opportunities may not offer the best odds of success, nor the best chance at a trophy ram. However, we're talking opportunities, not success. For the hunter who simply wants an opportunity at one of these animals regardless of size, these are more realistic options than trying to apply for once in a lifetime chances in every possible state or trying to pile up preference points in one location.
Montana Unlimited Units
The Unlimited has earned a legendary reputation with hunters over the decades it has been in place. If you want to hunt these units you can do it this year, no draws required. Tags are over the counter for bighorn sheep in units 300, 303, 500, 501, and 502 for residents and non-residents alike. The tag is $125 for residents and $1,250 for non-residents, which is way more affordable than most tags.
There are several major catches to this option though. One, these units are in some of the most rugged and unforgiving terrain in Big Sky country, to the point many sheep hunters back out for that reason alone. Many who aren't intimidated by the terrain bow out after seeing how many grizzly bears and other predators inhabit these units. The second reason many don't even try is the odds of a successful hunt are extremely low. These are quota units, and the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department usually sets the quota no higher than two animals for each unit. Once the FWP confirms the quota has been hit, the season closes within 48 hours.
Don't make the mistake of thinking you need to be the first hunters there though. Because it may be the toughest North American hunt out there, that quota usually isn't met right away either. In fact, we've heard it sometimes takes even the most experienced of hunters years of returning to this area to down a ram in these units, even with the aid of a hunting guide. It's a tough hunt! However, which would you rather do? Go hunting this year? Or sit at home and apply for another unsuccessful draw in a state where you may never be successful? We know which one we'd pick. In fact, it seems there's more respect in sheep hunting circles for hunters who are successful in these units than any others in North America.
Alaska, Idaho, New Mexico's Random Drawings
Most states have extremely convoluted draws that rely on things like preference points that give an obvious advantage to anyone who has been putting in for those tags the longest. That is great if you've been applying your whole life for one of those tags. It's not so great if you're older and are just wanting to get sheep hunting checked off your bucket list before it's too late. In those circumstances, it probably makes more sense to apply for a random draw. In this type of tag lottery, everyone is on an equal playing field regardless of residency, no matter how long they have been applying. The teenager applying for the first time has the same odds as the 65-year-old who has been trying his whole life. In truth, this may be the best way to go on a Dall sheep hunt in Alaska. The Last Frontier does have two registration hunts for these sheep available, but the hunt areas are so remote, and so hard to reach, they are out of the grasp of most average hunters.
We should be honest: the odds aren't great for most of these draw hunts. New Mexico is probably the hardest of these three to obtain. Some of the New Mexico hunt areas only had around 30 tags to go around and as many as 7,000 applicants. However, in Idaho, there were slightly better odds for Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. For instance, according to Idaho Fish and Game's draw data, area 36 only had one tag to go around in 2021, but only 34 people applied for that area. Idaho doesn't give out many bighorn sheep tags. The most tags they gave away in 2021 was 12 for area 27-1. Still, with only 160 applying, that's a better chance than any drawing where preference points come into play and put your odds at less than one percent.
Alberta and Mexico Guided Hunts
The odds for drawing a desert bighorn sheep hunt are long, even by the already lofty stands set by most bighorn sheep draws. That's why many people who are looking to do a bighorn sheep slam end up going to Mexico. There are outfitters down there who get landowner permits and they can sell them as part of a complete hunt package. We will warn that these experiences aren't cheap. On the low end you might be able to find one for $10,000, on the high end you're looking at $40,000-$60,000. That's a lot, but bear in mind that most desert bighorn sheep auctions in the U.S. rarely sell the tag alone for less than $70,000. These Mexico hunts are usually nearly all expenses paid. They include a ride from the airport, food, lodging, and one-on-one guide services. If a desert bighorn is on your bucket list, spend a few years saving your money. It may be the most realistic opportunity out there for an average hunter.
Just like Mexico, there are guided hunt opportunities in Alberta for Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep that include a guaranteed tag with the price of admission. Again, they are not cheap. You are looking at $35,000 to $40,000 at a minimum. There are plenty of other outfitters that charge more. However, you will get your money's worth. Most are 10- to 14-day hunts with all your lodging, meals, and hunting license fees included. Success rates are usually high with these outfits too, so if you're worried about getting skunked, this type of guided hunt may be the best option.
Buying Tickets in Sheep Tag Raffles
To some, buying a raffle ticket may seem akin to buying those cheap lotto scratch-off at the convenience store. You know, the ones you hardly ever win on, and when you do, it's only $2. However, more sheep hunters are discovering they may be a legitimate way to get a tag in a hard-to-draw area without the hassle of waiting for years hoping against odds your number will come up. For instance, the Wild Sheep Society of British Columbia held a raffle this past year for a Yukon Dall sheep hunt where there were only 750 tickets sold. So, entrants had a one in 750 chance of the hunt of a lifetime. That's not bad when you compare it to some draw odds for some states and provinces.
Sometimes the raffle can even produce better odds than applying for a hunt through the state. During a presentation for the Wild Sheep Foundation, it was noted hunters often need to pay a non-refundable application fee of over $100 for a chance to draw a Washington State sheep tag. The odds they cite for the Washington hunt in the video are about one in 1,200 for that. However, they also noted that nearby California has a raffle every year where the cost is nearly the same, yet the odds are much better. About one in 700. There are literally dozens of these raffles happening through various conservation organizations and wildlife agencies all over North America. And some of them will even allow you to buy multiple chances, thereby increasing your odds even more. If you are already paying large application fees and are having no success, it can't hurt to try a different method. Someone has to win it, and it could be you. Raffles are always going to be cheaper than buying a tag through auction!