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John Day Canyon produces new world record California Bighorn

By Jeffrey Kee Times-Journal Contributor

A new world record California Bighorn Sheep has been declared and it came from Oregon’s John Day canyon, outside of Condon.

The record ram was harvested last year in the lower John Day river region by Mike Kinney of Spokane, Washington. Mr. Kinney won his tag in the state tag raffle and was guided by Eden Ridge Outfitters employees including owner John McCollum and Chanse Bennett of Condon.

Safari Club International recognizes the California Bighorn Sheep in its own category and announced that the measurement score of over 191 5/8 inches, made it a recognized world record.

The Boone and Crockett organization does not separate California from Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep. Oregon has both species. Total tags allocated in 2023 were under 70 statewide.

Guide John McCullom who has harvested Oregon bighorns himself, credited his grandfather for instilling his passion for hunting. “My grandfather built the first culvert traps for bears.” He shared. The design is still being used today.  “I went on my first bear hunt when I was 3 years old.”

McCullom gratefully acknowledged the assistance of Chanse Bennett and the private landowners that granted access to their lands when they spotted the large ram from three miles away, last fall.

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (ODFW) District Biologist from Heppner, Steve Cherry, confirms that the John Day bighorn sheep population is doing extremely well. So well they have started issuing tags for female ewes along the river. The Department is very concerned about expanding populations coming into contact with domestic animals that can carry diseases back to healthy herds.

California Bighorn Sheep in the Columbia River Gorge range into the John Day Basin and are doing so well they are being trapped and relocated across the West. (photo by Jeffrey Kee)

Cherry shared some background on the history of Oregon’s bighorn sheep.

“It is generally accepted that all the bighorns in Oregon were extirpated in the 20’s or 30’s” he stated. “Our first re-introductions came from British Columbia, starting in 1989,” he continued. ”Now we have around a thousand animals in the John Day Basin and are able to capture and relocate sheep to augment genetics and start new populations in Oregon and other states.”

Cherry shared that they are running out of suitable habitat locations in Oregon to transplant animals. ODFW does not have a specific target number for bighorns, like they do for other big game animals in Oregon. He stated that ODFW has some students in Idaho under contract to start some sheep habitat studies in the John. Day Basin. Managers in Oregon still don’t have strong animal habitat association knowledge about this iconic species.

Bighorn rams can live to 13 years and ewes a few years more. State department staff usually assists tag holders in locating harvest size rams in the early fall.

Oregon residents get the majority of the tags issued annually, but there are 2 methods for any hunter to secure a tag. One is auctioned off annually to maximize investment in sheep management. Last year it sold at auction for $370,000. One additional tag is available through a raffle. Bighorn tags in Oregon are limited to one per lifetime, unless you buy one at the Wild Sheep Foundation event in Nevada or win the raffle.

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