The State Assembly turned management of bighorn sheep over to the Department of Fish and Game Wednesday morning, a move that will result in the first legal hunts of the majestic mountain animals in California since 1873.
The bill, previously passed by the State Senate, was sponsored by Assemblyman Richard Mountjoy (R-Monrovia). The Assembly passed it, 42-37, and sent it to Gov. George Deukmejian, who reportedly has said he will sign it.
The new law authorizes:
--DFG-supervised hunts of desert bighorn sheep, also known as Nelson bighorns. The hunts are expected to take no more than 15% of the adult rams inhabiting the two Mojave Desert ranges where hunts can be held, the Old Dad and Marble Mountains. The law will go into effect Jan. 1, 1987, and the first hunts are likely to be held in November or December of 1987.
--Continued protection of the two other types of bighorns in California, peninsular bighorns, which range from Palm Springs south to Mexico, and California bighorns, found in the Sierra Nevada and Warner Mountains of northeast California.
--Management plans to be produced by the DFG for all 50 bighorn herds in California.
--An auction of one bighorn tag each year, to raise money for bighorn habitat and transplant projects.
DFG control of bighorn management is a goal conservation and hunting groups in the state have sought for decades.
"We've introduced legislation every year for about the last 15 years to put bighorn management responsibility where it belongs, with the DFG," said George Taylorson, a board member of the Society for Conservation of Bighorn Sheep. "It's been a long, tough road. . . . It's hard to believe we've finally done it."
The Society for Conservation of Bighorn Sheep has provided volunteer manpower and money for years in transplant projects involving bighorns throughout the state. A DFG state bighorn population estimate completed in July yielded a figure of 4,782 bighorns in the state, up by about 1,000 over a 1972 census.
California has more bighorns than any western state except Nevada, biologists estimate. Yet, it has been the only state, until now, without a hunting program to finance management programs. Thirteen western states and the Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia offer bighorn hunts.
The hunter who bids high enough for the right to bag the first legal bighorn in California in 114 years will pay dearly--perhaps as much as $100,000.
"We're pretty sure we'll auction off that first tag for as much as $100,000," said Dick Weaver, longtime DFG biologist who pioneered much of the bighorn work done in the state today.
"That, plus revenue from the remaining tag sales (remaining tags, probably to be drawn by lot, could cost up to $500 each) will pay a lot of bills. We use a helicopter in transplant operations and a chopper costs us $6 a minute," Weaver added.
Vern Bleich, another DFG biologist active in many bighorn projects, said that all revenue from bighorn hunts will go into a "dedicated account," a fund to be used only for bighorn habitat work.
Taylorson said: "We have been told by several hunters they would bid up to and over $100,000 if they had to, for the honor of getting that first California bighorn tag. And we hope we can convince the Fish and Game Commission that we should be the organization to run that auction.
"Our motto is '10,000 by 2000,' or 10,000 bighorns in California by the year 2000. This bill, which enables us to raise so much more money for bighorn habitat work, is a big step in that direction."
The fund-raising trend in western bighorn management in recent years is toward auctions of single tags and drawings for the remaining tags. Six hunters have spent more than $50,000 for single tags and the record, $79,000 for a Montana Rocky Mountain bighorn, was bid by Art Dubs of Medford, Ore., a year ago.
Nevada, which auctioned a single tag for $67,500 last year, sells about 130 tags for its winter bighorn seasons, 10% of which are set aside for out-of-state hunters, at $800 apiece. Non-residents also pay $75 for hunting licenses. Nevadans pay $75 for a tag, $13 for a license.
"The price for that auctioned tag keeps going up," said Dan Delaney, a big game management official in Nevada's Department of Wildlife. "The winning bids were around $20,000 when we started the auctions about five years ago."
Odds of drawing a Nevada tag are steep, Delaney pointed out. In California, where there are roughly 900,000 licensed hunters, odds might resemble those of the lottery.
Also in California, the application process alone for the desert bighorn hunts figures to produce more revenue than the tag sales. If, say, 100,000 hunters apply and pay a $5 application fee, that comes to $500,000.
Nevada's experience is that a normal year produces 13-to-1 odds for residents. "We get about 13 applications for each available resident tag, and we have about 900 non-resident applications for about 13 non-resident tags," Delaney said.