Hunting Tags Help New Mexico Bighorn Sheep Population Rebound

by Jennifer Shea

Bighorn sheep conservation programs are drawing roughly half a million dollars per year in New Mexico from the sale of hunting tags, fueling a resurgence in the state’s bighorn sheep population.

Hunters have been funding conservation efforts across the country. And New Mexico’s bighorn sheep programs are a prime example of that dynamic, the Santa Fe New Mexican reports.

Hunting Tags Funding Population Rebound

Bighorn sheep proliferated in North America during the early 1800s. Due to hunting and diseases carried by domestic sheep and goats, the population dropped precipitously in the mid-1800s to early 1900s. By 1960, the population had fallen from around 2 million to under 25,000.

Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep had disappeared from New Mexico by the early 1900s. And by the late 1970s, there were fewer than 70 desert bighorn sheep in New Mexico.

But conservationists brought in Rocky Mountain bighorns from Canada to start a new herd in New Mexico. Through a breeding facility funded by hunting groups, they revived the state’s desert bighorn population. 

There are currently 1,300 desert bighorn sheep and 1,700 Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep across the state. 

Bighorn biologist Eric Rominger told the New Mexican that the auction of several new hunting tags has brought a windfall for the state’s bighorn budget.

Before those four tags were introduced, hunting tag sales brought in less than $20,000 per year. In recent years, those four new tags alone have brought in $440,000 per year.

The hunting tags directly fund the state’s two dedicated bighorn biologists, the captive breeding facility, helicopter surveys, captures and translocations, veterinary testing and predation control.

And those efforts have in turn fueled a major rebound in the state’s bighorn sheep population.

“Since the [hunting tag] auction sales began, the number of desert bighorn sheep captured annually has increased nearly tenfold,” Rominger said, “and without these funds, desert bighorn sheep would almost certainly still be on the endangered species list and may have possibly gone extinct.”

Domestic Animals Greatest Threat to Bighorns

Bryan Bartlett, president of the New Mexico Wild Sheep Foundation, told the New Mexican that the greatest threat to bighorn sheep today is not hunters but domestic sheep and goats. The latter carry a bacteria that causes pneumonia in the bighorns, which frequently kills them. They can transmit it by touching noses with the bighorn. That’s why it’s so important to keep the animals separated.

Meanwhile, the number of public licenses issued to hunt Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep has grown from eight in 1994 to 138-plus in 2020. But the odds of getting one run about 140 to 1 for residents and 607 to 1 for nonresidents. 

Brandon Wynn, a fifth-generation New Mexican who advocates public hunting, said he dislikes the “pay to play” hunting that has emerged in some western states. Still, he concedes that auction tags have funded bighorn sheep conservation in a major way.

And that, he said, is in everyone’s interest.