Since Justin Sheedy pulled the trigger on a huge bighorn ram last hunting season in the Missouri River Breaks it’s been a waiting game.
The sheep, shot in Hunting District 680 north of the Missouri River, was officially scored by a Boone and Crockett Club judge last December. Based on those measurements, the ram tied the current hunter-shot world record. With a score of 208 3/8, Sheedy’s ram is in a dead heat with Guinn Crousen’s bighorn ram shot in 2000 in the Luscar Mountain region of Alberta, Canada.
Those two rams differ from the top three bighorn sheep in the world, which were all found dead instead of hunter-killed. That includes a dead bighorn sheep picked up on Wild Horse Island in Flathead Lake, which was officially certified earlier this year at 216 3/8 — No. 1 in the world.
Although Sheedy, 20, a Montana State University civil engineering student, knew after chasing sheep for three weeks spread across five trips that the ram he shot was big, the reality of just how big the sheep was didn’t hit until it was officially scored.
One score isn’t enough, however. All new Boone and Crockett top 10 record book entries face an additional test, a scoring by two panels of judges. That’s what has left Sheedy waiting. The scoring will be done in August 2019 in Springfield, Missouri.
“Typically they do (hold),” said Keith Balfourd, director of marketing at Boone and Crockett’s headquarters in Missoula. “Sheep aren’t as complex to score as a moose or a caribou or other animals that grow abnormally.”
Sheedy’s father, Ted, put his son in for the bighorn tag, even though college, a part-time job and Army National Guard service was tying up his schedule. When he was awarded the license in Montana’s annual drawing — a less than 1 percent chance — Sheedy decided to carve out as much time as possible from his busy schedule.
"We worked really hard backpacking in," Ted said. "The sheep live on public land, but you have to hike in five miles before hunting."
Excursions to the Eastern Montana area meant long drives from Bozeman, wet and muddy slogs through the Breaks’ notorious gumbo mud and finally success on Oct. 20, 2017, when it seemed like notching the tag may not happen.
“We saw it two weeks before I shot it, and I wasn’t able to make the shot,” Sheedy said.
With National Guard duty the next weekend, the long wait to get back out in the field was agonizing.
“A lot of things can happen in two weeks,” he noted. “Once we saw that one ram there was pressure to get back there.”
When the ram was finally spotted with a group of 16 others, Sheedy, his father and other hunters along for the ride worked to pick out the biggest of the bunch. With a crosswind howling, Sheedy settled the sights of his .300 Weatherby rifle on what all agreed was the biggest ram and pulled the trigger, even though it was a 279-yard shot.
“I was shaking more than normal with the adrenaline and cold wind,” he said.
No matter whether the bighorn ram’s horns score the same as the current hunter-shot world record, Balfourd noted that Montana is unquestionably “producing the largest bighorns in history, and that history goes back to the 1830s.
“So we’re doing something right,” he added. “When it comes to sheep it’s all about habitat quality, moreso than genetics.”
Those same genetics that produced the No. 1 sheep in the world, the one found dead on Wild Horse Island, have been planted across the state as part of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ efforts to boost or re-establish bighorn herds by relocating animals.
"It's a great conservation story," Ted said.
Balfourd noted the big ram is also a statement about good conservation management, since big sheep need time to grow large horns.
Montana has also entered the record books and received national attention recently for the No. 1 typical archery-killed and nontypical elk, both of which were killed in southeastern Montana on public land. It seems, in some ways, that this is the golden era for hunting some big game species in Montana.
For Sheedy, the bighorn ram is the defining moment of a hunting career that stretches back to when he was 10 years old. That’s when he passed his first hunter’s safety course in Washington and began hunting on his grandparents’ farm. For Sheedy, though, hunting is not all about the animals taken.
“I just feel an element of survival even though it’s not a life-or-death situation,” he said. “In the outdoors, being away from people and technology, I don’t have to worry about the stresses of life. And it’s great pursuing a challenge you’re passionate about.”