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Nebraska’s Bighorns: A Restoration in Progress


A new bighorn state record in Nebraska showcases the state’s ongoing big game restoration efforts. Auction and raffle tags are helping foot the bill. 

By PJ DelHomme 

A new bighorn state record in Nebraska showcases the state’s ongoing big game restoration efforts. Auction and raffle tags are helping foot the bill.  

Jim Hart from South Dakota, displays an Audubon bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis auduboni) shot on Sheep Mountain in 1903 by Charley Jones.

Before settlers arrived in Nebraska, the western Panhandle’s craggy bluffs and table-top mesas were home to the extinct Badlands bighorn, aka Audubon’s bighorn (Ovis canadensis auduboni). Even though the existence of this bighorn subspecies is still debated, bighorns of any variety were wiped from Nebraska’s landscape by the early 1900s. Market hunting, disease, and habitat loss had annihilated yet another big game species. 

In the 1980s, game managers began relocating bighorn sheep to some of their native ranges. Initially, they released 12 bighorns at Fort Robinson State Park in the far northwestern corner of the state. Over the next few decades, the department released sheep from Colorado, Montana, and Alberta. 

Currently, Nebraska has two main herds: the Pine Ridge herd in the north and the Wildcat Hills to the south. As to the former, the population there is struggling, says Todd Nordeen, big game disease and research program manager for Nebraska Game and Parks. Because of major disease issues like pneumonia, there are only around 30 animals. To the south, though, the report is more uplighting. With around 220 animals, the herd there is generally healthy—and growing. 

Since the department authorized a hunting season in 1998, 30 mature rams have been harvested. Eleven of those went to auction permit buyers and 19 went to resident lottery permit winners. There’s not an even split between the two permits because the Game and Parks Commission isn’t required to allocate two tags each and every year. When Nordeen and his team surveys sheep populations every spring, they make a recommendation on how many tags should be offered. Some years, there may only be enough sheep for one tag, which goes to the resident lottery draw. Some years, there may not be any tags available.

Money for Conservation 

To be blunt, sheep hunting is not cheap—especially in the Lower 48. The winning bid on a bighorn auction tag will almost always run six figures. And those high-priced tags have caused ire among some hunters—the venom being downright nasty at times on social media. Regardless of anyone’s personal opinion on the topic, it’s worth considering a few facts about these tags. Take Nebraska. 

Each year, the Nebraska resident-only bighorn sheep tag raffle generates around $100,000. And that number has gone up considerably in recent years, says Nordeen. Combine that with another $200,000 or so for the Governor’s Tag, and you’re talking real money. In fact, since Game and Parks began making permits available, roughly $1.4 million has been raised from the auction and lottery permits, according to Nebraska Game and Parks’ website. 

By state statute, any money raised by raffle applications or auctions goes back into big game conservation, which includes elk, bighorn sheep, whitetail and mule deer. “A lot of that money is focused on disease research and testing,” Nordeen says. Expenses related to net gunning, radio collaring and monitoring sheep populations are oftentimes cost-prohibitive for state fish and game departments. For instance, helicopter flight time alone can be as high as $1,700/hour. 

Biologists rely on helicopters for transporting sheep, which can be cost-prohibitive at times. Lauren Alfrey, far right, handles a ewe during a collaring and darting project.  

In addition, conservation groups like the Wild Sheep Foundation, Nebraska Chapter of Safari Club International, Iowa Chapter of Foundation for North American Wild Sheep, Midwest Chapter of the Wild Sheep Foundation, and the Nebraska Big Game Society contribute money and volunteer time to conserve and grow sheep populations in the state. It’s a strategic, coordinated effort with one goal: support conservation of big game and other wildlife.  

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"The wildlife and its habitat cannot speak. So we must and we will."

-Theodore Roosevelt