California's first bighorn sheep hunting tag in 114 years was auctioned off Saturday night, and the unexpectedly low winning bid, $70,000, touched off some second-guessing Sunday in big-game hunting circles.
Bob Howard, a 46-year-old Palm Desert hunter, was the winner in a two-minute auction that began at $40,000 and rose quickly to $65,000, the final bid by Reno taxidermist Mike Boyce, who was believed to have been bidding for someone else.
The auction, at Park Place in Irvine, was attended by about 300 and picketed outside by about a dozen conservationists. But inside, Howard and Boyce were the only serious bidders for the California tag, a development that surprised many.
Some felt the San Gabriel-based Society for Conservation of Bighorn Sheep, authorized by the state to run the auction, failed to bring in enough well-heeled bighorn hunters who've bid as much as $109,000 at other bighorn tag auctions. And others said the hunt was over-hyped to begin with, by both the Society and the state Department of Fish and Game, which has organized the November-December hunt, the first legal bighorn hunt in the state since 1873.
A Montana bighorn tag auctioned off in January at a Foundation for North American Wild Sheep auction went for a record $109,000 to Oregon hunter Arthur Dubs. When contacted at his home Sunday by The Times, Dubs refused to say why he had not participated in the Irvine auction.
But Lloyd Zeman, former president of the Cody, Wyo.,-based Foundation, suggested some reasons why the California tag attracted so little bidding interest by bighorn hunters.
"Normally, you've got maybe a dozen guys bidding for one of these tags," he said. "But for this one, there was so much talk about the tag going for $150,000 or more, that alone may have kept a few people at home," he said. "Also, it takes pros to run a successful bighorn auction and the people running this one (the Society for the Conservation of Bighorn Sheep) aren't pros.
"Did anyone get on the phone and make sure the big bidders were there? I don't know.
"And the timing wasn't right, either. I'm an outfitter. I arrange worldwide hunts for a lot of hunters, and 95% of the sheep hunters I know have already booked their '87 fall hunts. If the California tag was for an '88 fall hunt, you might've have had more interest."
Jim DeForge, a bighorn biologist and executive director of the Palm Desert-based Bighorn Research Institute (Howard is a member and large contributor), wondered afterward if too much was made of the historical significance of "California Tag No. 001."
"For a lot of money, what you get is a hunt limited to two small Mojave Desert ranges (Old Dad Peak and the Marble Mountains), one of which is so small you can walk around it in two days," he said.
"Also, I personally doubt if there are world class trophy animals in those two ranges.
"So for all that money you maybe wind up with a ram that puts you in the middle of the Boone and Crockett list (the record book of big game hunting). For $15,000, you can get a Mexico desert bighorn hunt and you can hunt a much wider area."
Dr. Loren Lutz, president of the Society for the Conservation of Bighorn Sheep, said he wasn't unhappy with Howard's $70,000, all of which goes into a DFG account for bighorn management.
"There's a lot of second guessing . . . but we're very happy with the auction, and very grateful for Bob Howard's generosity. We're proud of him for not only this bid, but for all his help in bighorn projects in California."
Lutz said the auction could have been held last fall, were it not for the "slow-moving state government bureaucracy." Gov. George Deukmejian signed the bill transferring bighorn management from the legislature to the DFG last September.
Howard, clad in a black leather jacket and black cowboy hat, had little to say after becoming the first man with a legal permit to shoot a bighorn in California since 1873.
"I was going to quit (at $70,000), I thought it'd go to two hundred. . . . I got stuck," he said.
Howard was described as the financial backbone of the Bighorn Research Institute. He's the son of former film actress Andrea Leeds and the grandson of the late Charles S. Howard, California auto dealer magnate and race horse owner (Seabiscuit). When he died in 1950, Charles S. Howard's estate was valued at more than $10 million.
Bob Howard isn't known as a premier bighorn hunter, and said he had never before participated in a bighorn tag auction. He said he'd hunted bighorns once, in Mexico. He is known, however, as a major benefactor of bighorn habitat projects.
"Bob has given about $500,000 to bighorn work, more than anyone alive," DeForge said.
With his tag, Howard earned the right to hunt Old Dad Peak and the Marbles for a trophy ram from Nov 21-Dec. 27. He gets to shoot first, too. Eight other bighorn tags, to cost $200 each, will be drawn by hunters in a DFG computer drawing. They will hunt the same ranges from Dec. 5-20.
The long-awaited California bighorn auction was just one of many auctions Saturday at the $50-per-plate banquet/auction. Banquet revenues; bids for other hunting trips, merchandise, wildlife art and raffle tickets raised approximately another $230,000 for bighorn management, Lutz said.
San Jose hunter Mike Maestri, with a $17,000 bid, won a Wyoming Rocky Mountain bighorn tag, donated by Wyoming Gov. Mike Sullivan. John Gregg of Glendale bid $15,500 and won a Mexico desert bighorn tag.