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Counting sheep: South Dakota accidentally OKs Bighorn hunts for thousands

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A South Dakota man recently paid $102,000 to hunt one of these animals. (California Department of Fish and Wildlife)

South Dakota fish and game officials must be feeling sheepish.

Some 2,000 hunters were mistakenly sent emails saying they were successful in obtaining tags to hunt the state's rarest of big game – the Bighorn Sheep. The problem is, only two such tags – which have been known to fetch as much as $400,000 at auction – were supposed to be awarded. The mistake was quickly cleared up, but not without disappointing a lot of hunters, who thought they had a rare shot at hunting a prized trophy.

“It’s a very exclusive opportunity. It’s a supply and demand thing … We have a limited habitat of bighorn sheep."

- Scott Simpson, South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department

Scott Simpson, a spokesman for the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department, told FoxNews.com that roughly 2,000 applicants were inadvertently sent an email saying they were successful in drawing a bighorn sheep tag. The erroneous emails were caused by a “computer glitch,” Simpson said, and the individuals never received the tags because officials soon caught the mistake. Scott said about 4,000 South Dakota residents applied for the tag. He also said the state auctioned off a tag for the first time this year. John Dagel, of Watertown, S.D., bid $102,000 for it – money Simpson said will go toward programs that preserve the sheep and their habitat.  

The rare chance to hunt bighorn sheep in Western states is what drives hunters to apply in droves for licenses – and, in some cases, bid hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction.

“It’s a very exclusive opportunity,” Simpson said. “It’s a supply-and-demand thing … We have a limited habitat of bighorn sheep. We have a lot less than whitetail deer.”

In South Dakota, the estimated population of big horn sheep is 300. Two hundred are fair game for authorized hunters in the Black Hills, while approximately 100 sheep located within the borders of the Badlands National Park are off limits. No hunting is permitted there, according to the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department.

Hunters’ demand for bighorn sheep tags also extends to other states, like California, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah and Colorado. A record $480,000 was paid for a Montana bighorn tag at auction, the highest value ever assigned to a bighorn hunt.

Last January, an Indiana man paid $45,000 for a permit to kill one of California's Desert Bighorn sheep. The tag was sold to Jim Craig at auction during the 41st Safari Club International Convention in Reno, Nev.

The permit allows Craig to hunt in Kelso Peak and Old Dad Mountains in San Bernardino County. Rob Holliday, Safari Club International's convention operations manager, said at the time that 100 percent of the funds will go to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

"Our mission is conservation, and this is a service for the state," Holliday told FoxNews.com.

Western states that have big game hunting typically earmark a certain number of tags, each of which allows a hunter to kill one of the specified animals. California issued about two dozen tags for the Desert Bighorn Sheep, most of which were awarded in a random drawing. But "governor's tags," those with special privileges that allow a holder to hunt a broader area and for a longer period of time, are often sold at auction to raise money for conservation.

Simpson said officials are currently reviewing protocols to ensure the incident involving the erroneous emails never happens again.