New state record desert bighorn sheep taken by hunter in Orocopia Mountains
By JIM MATTHEWS
A potential new state record desert bighorn sheep was killed Wednesday this past week by Jason Hairston of Dixon, Calif, while hunting in the rugged terrain of the Orocopia Mountains near Indio. The ram is also like to become the world record for the Nelson subspecies of desert sheep.
The huge ram, nicknamed Goliath by Hairston’s guide Jake Franklin, scored 190 5/8 points on the Boone & Crockett scoring scale. Both horns were 40-inches long from base to tip along the outside edge of the curl, and the bases were 16 ½-inches in circumference. The ram was 12 years old, which is about as long as desert sheep live. (The previous record scored 185 4/8.)
Hairston, who owns KUIU Ultralight Hunting, a hunting and backcountry clothing and equipment outfitter, hunted with Franklin four days before they saw this ram. But that is a very small part of the effort that went into finding this giant ram. Franklin, who runs Kika Worldwide, a guide and outfitting service out of his home in Angeles Oaks, has spent four years tracking and following Goliath after he found the ram in 2014. In 2015 he hunted for the sheep 58 days, some with his hunting client, never able to find the ram or get in on him when they did. In 2016, Franklin spent 30 days looking for the sheep.
This season Franklin found the big sheep before the hunting season opened, but as the ram did most years, the old boy disappeared. He moved away from traditional haunts, not coming to the springs and other man-made water sources for months.
“He’s one of two rams in the unit that break open barrel cactus to get water,” said Franklin. “When he disappeared, I started searching for me, and I knew I’d found the right area when we started finding the broken cactus.”
It still took four days of dawn to dusk hunting before they found the old ram and were able to get close enough for a shot. In total, Franklin had spent 33 days before and during the season watching and looking for Goliath.
Photos and information about the ram were all over social media this week, and it brought out the well-meaning animal lovers and the vitriolic anti-hunting trolls in force commenting on the kill.
It became very clear that increasing numbers of people today simply don’t understand hunter’s love and passion for wildlife, and their incredible contribution to the salvation and recovery of species like desert bighorn, which happen to be a great example of a hunter-conservation story.
One of the main things most people seem not to know or care about is that legal hunting pays for the management, maintenance, and expansion of the populations of wildlife in all states. It is only in recent years that others funding sources have started to flow into the state wildlife agencies tasked with protecting and restoring wildlife populations. For years, hunters and anglers were the only ones paying the bills with their license and tag fees.
Even those who know this, made a big deal about the fact that Hairston had purchased his sheep tag at a fundraising dinner for $235,000, all of which is earmarked for the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s sheep management program. That is a big chunk of change. When the DFW sells less than 20 tags a year, that amount is multitudes more than all the money brought in from the sale of the remaining sheep tags. Others complained that since the hunter could use this tag in any of the sheep zones currently with open seasons in the state, the kill of one sheep was somehow upsetting its carefully managed sheep program. The reality is that our DFW has the most conservative and restrictive sheep hunting program of any Western state, and we could be shooting about eight to 10 times as many sheep as we currently do each year without impacting the state’s herds negatively.
It is because of the hunting program that the state can utilize hunter’s license fees and federal funds from the sale of hunting products to do sheep management. By law, that money can’t be used for non-hunters species (although it has been for years directly and indirectly).
What has that management done?
It has restored sheep to mountain ranges across the region by trapping and relocated sheep from healthy herds. These are ranges where the sheep had been extirpated in the 1800s and early 1900s by market hunting and poaching. The DFW and volunteers restored desert springs, built man-made drinkers (guzzlers), and restored wells in sheep habitat to bring water to habitat so it could be used year-around by desert sheep herds. These relative simple efforts have paid big dividends.
The success is in the numbers. The desert sheep population has grown from less than 250 animals (some think a lot less) 75 years ago to over 5,000 bighorn today, and the effort continues to expand their range and restore them into more desert mountains. Without hunters and their love of wildlife, and many like Hairston have a special affection for bighorns, the species likely would have gone extinct in California decades ago.
Hairston knew his money was going to a great cause and was happy to make the donation in return for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hunt a mature ram in his home state. But it was about more than money for a program or killing an old, old desert ram. Some social media users said he just killed it for some sort of bloodlust and that the meat wouldn’t be eaten.
Anyone who says that is either a liar or doesn’t understand hunters. I guarantee the meat from that ram will be eaten and savored by Jason's family and hunting friends. They will sit at dinner tables and relive the long days spent in the field, share stories of game seen, stalks botched, and those -- as novelist Thomas McGuane wrote about so elegantly -- "longest silences" all hunters know and love. That sheep will live on in stories around campfires until all hunters are gone. This is the truth.
Many negative comments on social media were met with visceral reactions from the few of us who know and love wildlife who also still claim our long, evolutionary roots as hunters. That ran was hunted for a lot of reasons, and food was one of them, but an important one. Non-hunters need to understand and respect all that hunters do and all that they love, and not judge us by their inaccurate and distorted view of who and what we are and what hunting means to us.
From our perspective, the comments and opinions on how wrong it was to kill this sheep, and to hunt in general, are hypocritical and biased because it comes from a place of ignorance about the subject. If you are indeed vegan and spend your time and money helping wildlife, hunters are likely to accept your perspective. You are walking the walk. If you eat any kind of meat or fish and still somehow think hunting is wrong – well – that is like racial prejudice, a form of discrimination based on ignorance or hate. As hunters in an increasingly non-hunting, anti-hunting society, we have become hyper-sensitive to this type of latent discrimination.
A great Sioux American Indian chief once wrote, "when all the buffalo are gone, we will hunt mice because we are hunters and want our freedom." Hunters are losing that freedom.
A new state record bighorn sheep is a cause for celebration, not ridicule.
[Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 909-887-3444.]
Jason Hairston (right), guide Jake Franklin (center), and Jason's son Cash with the new state record bighorn sheep shot Nov. 8 in the Orocopia Mountains. The ram scored 190 5/8 inches or points on the Boone & Crockett system.