Bighorn raffle pays dividends

Aug. 12—The raffle for an Idaho bighorn sheep hunting tag raised a record $335,008 — the sixth year in a row the popular drawing that funds sheep research and conservation in the Gem State has set a new high mark.

That comes with a caveat, though, and it also sits side-by-side with continued good news about the health of bighorn herds in the greater Hells Canyon region, a sign that conservation work funded by sheep hunters is paying dividends.

First, the caveat. Every year, the Idaho Fish and Game Commission donates one tag each to the Wild Sheep Foundation and the Idaho Wild Sheep Foundation — the first being a national group and the second an affiliated state group. The national group sells its tag via auction to the highest bidder. The state group raffles its tag.

In both cases, the money raised — minus marketing and administration costs — funds research, conservation and management of the iconic animals. Idaho’s Unit 11 south of Lewiston ranks as the state’s most desirable area to hunt bighorns because of the number of mature sheep sporting horns with full curls. Winners of the auction and raffle tags can use them in any open sheep hunting area in the state. Most of the time, the tag holders want to hunt in Unit 11.

To ensure the unit isn’t overhunted, the Fish and Game Commission and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game don’t allow both the auction tag and raffle tag holders to hunt there in the same year. Auction tag holders can hunt the Hells Canyon nit in odd years, and raffle tag holders get it in even years.

In odd years, the auction tag tends to have more vigorous bidding and in even years, more raffle tags are sold. So for the past six years, the raffle tag has set new even-year records and new odd-year records. But the even-year records are higher than the odd-year records.

This year, the total raised smashed the previous record of $212,000. Paul Donaldson, of Montana, won the tag, according to a news release from the Idaho Wild Sheep Foundation. He was one of more than 2,800 people who purchased raffle tickets that sell for $10 to $20, depending on whether they are purchased individually or as part of a package.

Frances Cassirer, Fish and Game’s lead bighorn sheep researcher and biologist, picked the winning tag at an event in Boise late last month. Satellite events were held in Lewiston and Idaho Falls.

“That is the most it’s ever gone for,” she said. “I’m still shocked it went for that much.”

Plagued by illness

For decades, sheep in the Hells Canyon region and across much of the West have struggled with pneumonia spread by contact with domestic sheep and goats that carry the illness but aren’t as severely affected by it as are bighorns.

The greater Hells Canyon region once had 10,000 or more wild sheep in several herds, according to some estimates. Those numbers dropped dramatically after settlers began using the canyon’s grassy slopes to graze their domestic animals. Eventually bighorns were extirpated from the canyon, but were reintroduced starting in the 1970s.

However the threat of the disease remained, and pneumonia swept through many of the Hells Canyon herds in 1996, killing about 300 animals. Since then, mortality from the illness, while less dramatic, has persisted and prevented the herds from growing.

Research breakthrough

Hunters poured money into research, seeking a cure or management protocol for the disease. Cassirer and people like Tom Besser, a microbiologist and wildlife disease researcher at Washington State University, spent many years looking for one. Eventually they arrived at a management regime that is paying dividends.

Wild sheep herds tend to suffer dramatic die-offs when first exposed to the contagious disease. After some time though, adults seemed to develop a tolerance or immunity to the illness. However, lambs were still getting sick and survival was poor.

Cassirer, Besser and others surmised that some ewes were likely carrying the disease and passing it on to lambs. They began systematically testing sheep and removing animals identified as carriers. Now all but one sheep group in the region — the Lostine herd in northeastern Oregon — appear to be free of the pathogen.

The result is robust survival of lambs in their initial first few months and survival into adulthood, known as recruitment, sufficient to increase the population.

“It used to be 20 to 30% (of lambs) would survive the summer and now it’s 60 to 80%; that is pretty good,” she said. “It ends up you have recruitment of say 40 to 50%, which means the adult survival has been pretty good and so the adult population is increasing. It’s translating into increasing populations like we thought it would.”

Now an important focus is to keep the disease from returning. Cassirer said the raffle tag is helping to fund a program (featured in a May 21, 2021, Tribune article at bit.ly/3QDxHW0) that helps educate owners of domestic sheep and goats in the area about the risk of the disease and steps they can take to lessen it. That includes voluntary testing of their animals to see if they are carrying the disease.

“It’s an important source of funding,” Cassirer said.

Barker may be contacted at ebarker@lmtribune.com or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.