No other game tags come close to creating the kind of revenues that the sheep tag does, Abella said. The elk tag might attract $30,000.
“The sheep tag, it’s a whole other level,” Abella said.
The 30 or so tags auctioned annually at the convention tend to draw bids from a small circle of wealthy hunters, perhaps 25 of them. Many have someone else do the bidding for them, even if they are in the ballroom, too.
Such anonymity helps keep other potential bidders from knowing whom they are competing against for a coveted tag. More important, perhaps, it helps avoid the publicity that can fuel hunting’s critics.
“Some of the big donors are C.E.O.s and presidents of large companies,” Hairston said. “I don’t think anybody, as a hunter, has a fear of saying that they’re a hunter. But in their role professionally, the concern is how it potentially affects their business.”
Jimmy John Liautaud, founder of the sandwich chain that bears his name, is a frequent bidder for sheep tags, including the one for British Columbia that he bought this year, by phone, for $210,000. Liautaud found himself in the sights of anti-hunters in 2015 when pictures from five years earlier surfaced showing him with dead elephants, a rhinoceros and a leopard shot in Africa. He has since said that he no longer hunts big game in Africa, but he does make frequent trips for sheep and other animals in Asia.
He successfully bid on the Montana Governor’s Permit four times since 2009, for a total of more than $1 million. In 2013, he lost out to Douglas Leech, a former bank executive from West Virginia, who paid $480,000 for the tag, still a record.
Like Liautaud, Leech declined to be interviewed.
Combined, the auction of about 30 permits over three nights in Reno raises about $3 million annually. The Wild Sheep Foundation adds money to that total and, last year, gave about $4.7 million to conservation efforts, mostly through state and provincial game departments or directly to Indian reservations.
Donations come in other forms, too. Liautaud recently spent about $3 million for a three-mile fence near the Taos Pueblo reservation in New Mexico, according to reservation officials, along a stretch where sheep from a growing herd were getting hit on a highway.
But the conservation efforts have created a Catch-22. Sheep numbers are on the rise, leading some states to raise the number of permits available through the lotteries, to cull old rams and help keep populations down in specific areas. In turn, more hunters can increase competition for top rams, which can lower the price the wealthy are willing to pay for an auction tag, thus hurting the budgets of those involved in conservation.
It’s a concern for those, like Bob Anderson, the historian of hunting, who have witnessed all the positive changes over recent decades.
“There’s some fear,” Anderson said, “that sheep hunting will strangle on its success.”
The Hunt of a Lifetime
Ray Alt, a slight 76-year-old with his shirt tucked into his Wranglers, opened the door to his stone house in Livingston, Mont., where he was born and raised. The heads and horns of three sheep were mounted high on the living room wall. Around a corner and down some stairs was a trophy room, which used to be the garage, its walls filled with animals that Alt shot, with a bow or rifle, over a lifetime of hunting. The first animal he got as a boy, with a bow, was a porcupine. His favorites, though, are the sheep. He has eight of them.
“It’s sheep fever,” Alt said. “I don’t know how to explain it. It’s the love of the curly horns, I guess.”
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