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Wildcat Hills Hunt Helps New Yorker, Commission Meet Goals

The Sackmans with ram
Barbara Sackman poses with her bighorn sheep ram at Cedar Canyon Wildlife Management Area. (NEBRASKAland/Justin Haag)

One more for the books.

Barbara Sackman of Long Island, New York, added to a long string of hunting accomplishments with a trip to the Nebraska Panhandle this week. As one of just two bighorn sheep permit holders in the state, she harvested a big ram Wednesday, Dec. 2, at the Cedar Canyon Wildlife Management Area in the Wildcat Hills seven miles southwest of Gering.

The ram, which was among a group of about 20 sheep at the base of a south-facing cliff on the public area, dropped immediately with one shot from Sackman’s Winchester 7 mm Short at about 1 p.m. Wednesday. Barbara and her husband Alan, both 77, crawled 60 yards through tall grass so she could take the 210-yard shot at the ram.

The hunt resulted in the first sheep harvested from the Wildcat Hills in modern times. The ram is the 19th bighorn harvested as part of Nebraska’s wild sheep reintroduction program, which began in the 1980s. Each of the state’s previous hunts was in the Pine Ridge of northwestern Nebraska. Bighorn sheep were reintroduced to Cedar Canyon in 2001 after disease, unregulated hunting and habitat loss wiped out the species in the early 1900s.

Sackman, who has become a world-renowned hunter while hitting the field with her husband for the more than 35 years of their 54-year marriage, has a goal of harvesting 30 wild sheep during her hunting career. Tuesday’s ram makes 29, and complements a list of trophies that includes species such as Himalayan tahr, Barbary sheep and Arabian addax. She said the Nebraska hunt was appealing because she had never hunted a Rocky Mountain bighorn, the species that has been the focus of the state’s reintroduction efforts since the 1980s. The 9-year-old ram, unofficially scored at 173 5/8, is a trophy by any state’s standards and filled the bill nicely.JH20131024_1752.tif

“It’s a great sheep,” Alan said. “A person could hunt his whole life and not get many better than that one.”

The Sackmans, who live on three acres on Long Island and reside part of the year near Pagosa Springs, Colorado, are highly regarded in hunting and conservation circles. Barbara is the 2015 recipient of the prestigious Weatherby Hunting and Conservation Award. She is just the second woman to claim that honor, which was presented to her husband in 2008. It’s one award of many that she has received.

The Sackmans said they’re not in it for the recognition, however. They instead most cherish the memories and relationships they’ve developed through the years, in addition to the healthy meat the hunts have provided. Alan has even acquired a taste for the sheep’s liver.

“You don’t hunt for the awards. You hunt for the fun and sport of it,” Barbara said. “Plugging along, up and down the mountains, through the hills and streams — it’s worked out very nicely for us.”

While “plugging along” Wednesday, the Sackmans admitted that they were starting to wonder if they’d be able to get close enough to a Nebraska sheep to take a shot. Members of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission staff guided Sackman on the hunt. Brandon Tritsch, a Commission conservation technician, joined the two in stalking the animal.

A bighorn sheep ewe and lamb stand at the bottom of a cliff near Williams Gap Wildlife Management Area. (NEBRASKAland/Justin Haag)
A bighorn sheep ewe and lamb stand at the bottom of a cliff near Williams Gap Wildlife Management Area. (NEBRASKAland/Justin Haag)

The group spent Tuesday scouting the region in cold, windy conditions under gray skies. After observing about 100 sheep in three locations, Barbara had three favorites. Shortly after sunrise Wednesday, with diminished winds and high temperatures forecasted in the upper 40s, they set out pursuing a ram over and around buttes near the new Williams Gap Wildlife Management Area south of McGrew. The group caught sight of the ram and its herd during the hike, but they proved to be too wary in the open country to get within shooting distance. As morning was giving way to afternoon, the group ended that hiking pursuit and moved west to Cedar Canyon in search of ram No. 2. He was spotted in short time, not far from where he was the day before. After formulating a strategy, the Sackmans and Tritsch trekked around the back side of a hill at the base of the cliffs and made their crawl down the sloping terrain to harvest the ram.

The bighorn population throughout the Wildcat Hills, which now has the majority of the state’s estimated 360 sheep, has become a source of pride for the state’s wildlife managers. The herds there originate from sheep relocated from the Pike’s Peak area of Colorado and the Missouri River Breaks and Sun River areas of Montana.

Todd Nordeen, who manages the state’s bighorn sheep program and organized the hunt, was especially impressed with the herd the group saw near Williams Gap. The population there consists of several age classes unimpeded by disease and other challenges that have hindered the growth of some other herds.

Nordeen said the hunts provide invaluable financial support in the bighorn reintroduction and conservation efforts. Sackman won the permit in Nebraska’s seventh bighorn permit auction. The auction has generated thousands of dollars for conserving the species.

“We wouldn’t be able to do what we have done without the support of hunters and our many conservation organizations,” Nordeen said. “This tag has been an integral part of funding the bighorn sheep program and its projects such as collaring, monitoring and research.”

The other permit holder, who won his license by paying the $25 application fee to enter the lottery, plans to hunt next week in the Pine Ridge.

About Justin Haag

Justin Haag has served the Commission as a public information officer in the Panhandle since 2013. His duties include serving as regional editor for NEBRASKAland Magazine. Haag was raised in southwestern Nebraska, where he developed a love for fishing, hunting and other outdoor pursuits. After earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Chadron State College in 1996, he worked four years as an editor and reporter at newspapers in Chadron and McCook. Prior to joining the Commission in 2013, he worked 12 years as a communicator at Chadron State, serving as the institution’s media and public relations coordinator the last five. He and his wife, Cricket, live in Chadron, and have two children.

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