Poor judging is leading to illegal sheep kills

Rams at risk: Why hunter competition and social media are bad news for sheep

Most hunters were understandably aghast when a photo of seven rams seized by conservation officers in Fort Nelson, B.C., showed up on social media early last September, just a month into sheep-hunting season. For Stone’s and Dall’s sheep to be legal in B.C., they must either have a full curl or be at least eight years old. Not meeting those thresholds were two of the reasons given for the seizures, along with hunters allowing edible meat to spoil. To seasoned sheep hunters, it was pretty obvious most of rams pictured did not meet the legal size and age requirements.

According to sources I spoke to, officers seized at least five more rams in other districts that also did not meet the legal requirements. There’s little doubt most hunters who shoot underage or short rams actually believe the animals are legal. But why is that?

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Certainly, inexperience has played into the equation—many of those rams were taken by first-time sheep hunters with little or no experience judging rams. Each fall, numerous seminars on judging sheep are offered, but none of those courses are mandatory; many hunters believe they should be. The lack of experience isn’t the full story here, however. I feel several other factors are at play, including social media and a new culture of young, sponsored, athletic sheep hunters competing for a very limited resource.

COMPETITIVE MINDSET

This new breed of sheep hunter has thrust sheep hunting into the spotlight, putting more residents in the field in provinces and territories with sheep populations. You see more sheep hunters these days sporting flat brim caps, long beards and the latest fad camo than you do hunters wearing plaid, that’s for sure. There’s a lot of competition to kill rams and post pictures on social media, and I believe that’s making some of these hunters take unnecessary risks when judging.

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This competition has also driven prices sky high for outfitted hunts. With declining tag numbers for outfitters and a long line of young and old hunters eager to spend money, outfitted Stone’s sheep hunts are going for $75,000-plus these days. As a result, the pressure on guides and outfitters to produce is higher than ever.

Poor judging is leading to illegal sheep kills

There is no guarantee of success on outfitted hunts, however, with many hunters returning for a second or even third attempt. This has become big business, and the demand undoubtedly results in some of the bad calls on judging sheep. It does appear, though, that the bulk of sub-legal sheep are being taken by resident hunters.

With larger numbers of sheep hunters out there—dedicating more time and effort than ever—it’s no wonder taking a ram has become increasingly difficult. In Alberta for example, resident hunter success for bighorn sheep typically runs under seven per cent, making it easy for many hunters to talk themselves into taking a ram that appears to be close to legal.

MAKING CLOSE CALLS

There is also a trend these days of more experienced sheep hunters—eager to up their picture count on Instagram—taking practically any new hunter who can keep up with them into the mountains to kill a ram. It’s not uncommon to hear them bragging about making calls on sheep that are borderline legal. In some ways, in fact, it’s become a badge of honour to be the guy who can call the closest sheep.

In Alberta, bighorns are judged solely by their curl, not age. These days, social media is filled with pictures of five- to six-year-old rams—animals that hunters wouldn’t have looked at twice a couple of decades ago. Sadly, sheep hunting has become less about the pursuit for some hunters, and far more about the kill and resulting pictures on social media.

Long before social media, many considered sheep hunting to be the pinnacle of hunting, and they still do. However, now it’s more about how many pictures you post on Instagram and what camo you’re wearing; honouring the animals themselves has become secondary. The real reason sheep are the pinnacle of hunting is because of where they live, and the trials and tribulations involved in hunting them—not because they earn you the most likes on social media.

Western View is an opinion column, and we invite constructive discussion on the issues raised here.