Baker hunters hit the jackpot
By JAYSON JACOBY
Of the Baker City Herald
Three Baker County hunters won the big-game lottery this year, and now they never get to play again.
But their once-in-a-lifetime reward, all three agree, ranks as more than a mere consolation prize: the chance to hunt bighorn sheep rams in the county.
The fortunate few are Ed Elms of Baker City, Mark Christman of Halfway and John McLean of Huntington.
"I'm shocked," said Elms, 58. He said he has applied for a bighorn tag every year for at least the past 20. "It's a very unique opportunity."
Elms said his son, Russ, won a tag to hunt bighorns in Lake County about six years ago.
But Ed said he never figured he'd be as lucky.
Neither did Christman, 38, who has tried to get a bighorn tag for at least 15 years.
Christman said he fills out his application every year. And then he basically forgets what he did.
"You don't expect to draw a tag," he said. "It's like buying a lottery ticket."
Which is probably what most hunters think, considering the steep odds the three Baker County hunters bucked in drawing their tags for the bighorn season, which starts Saturday and continues through Sept. 21.
Christman and Elms claimed the two hunting tags the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) issues for the herd of about 95 Rocky Mountain bighorns that hang around Fox and Connor creeks, in the Lookout Mountain unit west of Brownlee Reservoir and north of Huntington.
Last year, 413 people applied for that hunt.
McLean, who could not be reached for comment, drew one of the two tags available for the hunt in the Burnt River Canyon between Durkee and Bridgeport. The 70 to 75 bighorns that roam the canyon are the California species, which are slightly smaller than Rocky Mountain bighorns.
In 2004, when ODFW sold only one tag for the Burnt River Canyon hunt, 362 people applied for it.
To put it another way, hunters from Baker County, which boasts about one-half of one percent of Oregon's population, claimed 75 percent of the tags for the county's coveted bighorn sheep hunts.
Several Baker County residents have drawn bighorn tags for local hunts during the past decade.
But this is the first year ODFW's computer-controlled lottery, a random system that does not give hunters any statistical leg up in drawing tags for their home counties, awarded three Baker County bighorn tags to Baker County hunters.
"I've seen (the lottery) do some pretty weird things before, but never that," said George Keister, district wildlife biologist at ODFW's Baker City office.
Elms said he's excited because he shares the hunt with only Christman quite a contrast compared with a typical deer or elk season, in which hundreds or even thousands of people traipse around a single unit.
"I think it'll be a lot of fun," Elms said.
He said he learned about Christman's good luck this summer.
Elms, who owns a cabin on the Powder River arm of Brownlee Reservoir near Richland, said he was talking with Theron Hampton, who owns the Hitching Post store in Richland. Elms said he told Hampton about drawing a bighorn tag for Lookout Mountain.
Elms said Hampton told him later that about 20 minutes after Elms left, Christmas walked into the store and asked Hampton, who is an ODFW agent, to check the agency's computer and see if Christman drew any tags.
Christman's reaction when his name appeared on the screen?
Both Christman and Elms said they have spent many hours over the past two months watching bighorns on Lookout Mountain and learning the intricacies of the steep terrain.
They've also chatted on the telephone and even met in person once along the reservoir.
"Ed's a good guy," Christman said. "I've basically told him what I've seen, and he's told me what he's seen."
Christman said he's glad the other Lookout Mountain sheep hunter is from Baker County.
"If it was somebody from out of town I would have been more apprehensive about talking to him and sharing what I know," he said.
Like Christman, Elms said he doesn't begrudge sharing his one-time trip with a fellow Baker County hunter.
"Mark's a great guy," Elms said. "We think we've seen a good share of the sheep in that area."
Both he and Christman were impressed by some of the rams they saw.
Both hunters said they intend to be patient, and wait to shoot until they have a trophy ram squarely in their sights.
"I'll like to get a real respectable full curl ram," Elms said. "With a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity like this you want to take your time."
"I don't think I'll shoot one on the first day," Christman said.
Not a single bighorn plied the steep slopes above Brownlee until 1994, when ODFW released two dozen sheep trapped in Montana.
Keister said the herd has thrived.
"There's some really good rams there," he said.
Good enough, in fact, that a pair of hunters who could have pursued bighorns anywhere in Oregon last month chose that herd.
Keister said each year ODFW sets aside one bighorn tag for a fund-raising raffle for a state program designed to improve wildlife habitat, and a second tag that's sold at an auction. The state uses the auction proceeds to transplant bighorns to sheep-free areas.
Both the raffle winner and the high bidder at the auction can hunt bighorns anywhere in Oregon.
This year both hunters killed a ram in the Lookout Mountain unit, Keister said.