Congressional Letter Addresses Threat to Sheep Industry
July 3, 2014

A recently announced framework of the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) stating its plans to decide the fate of sheep operations in Wyoming, Utah, Idaho and Nevada due to the management of bighorn sheep prompted a bi-cameral letter from U.S. Senators and Representatives to federal land managers.

Nationally, about half of all domestic sheep spend some time grazing on forests managed by the USFS or rangelands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The majority of bighorn sheep in the western United States also occupy portions of federal land in 14 western states.

The letter, signed by 37 members of Congress, to Tom Vilsack, secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Sally Jewell, secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior, asked for clarification of plans and required steps to avoid sheep ranches being forced out of business.

"We write to urge you to focus on multiple use solutions based on the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies' (WAFWA) delineated occupied bighorn habitat maps, the expert authority of state wildlife managers and animal health professionals, and the ability of stakeholders to help find solutions," the letter stated.

The concern with current USFS and BLM actions stem, in part, from the decision to remove 70 percent of domestic sheep from the Payette National Forest in Idaho. The decision on the Payette relied on multiple assumptions including the probability of contact between domestic sheep and bighorn sheep and the probability of disease (pneumonia) transmission if contact occurs. As such, there is a clear need to factually and transparently analyze risk of contact between domestic and bighorn sheep on western federal lands, as well as investigate options to move toward effective spatial and temporal separation, while accommodating domestic sheep grazing. Additionally, in order to ensure viability of bighorn sheep populations, a better understanding of the causes associated with documented pneumonia related die-offs of bighorn sheep in areas far removed from any domestic sheep is needed.

The BLM and the USFS recently collaborated with WAFWA to publish maps of 14 western states and Texas that depict current bighorn sheep distribution overlain with domestic sheep allotments on both USFS and BLM lands. Based on the WAFWA criteria, approximately 10 percent of domestic sheep allotments on USFS lands and 3 percent of sheep allotments on BLM lands are within currently-occupied bighorn sheep habitat.

Yet, there appears to be a concerted effort, by the USFS in particular, to expand the removal of domestic sheep to allotments outside of occupied bighorn sheep habitat. We strongly oppose the action to close all livestock grazing and not authorize forage reserves. This decision would be very short-sighted if alternative forage is needed due to drought or wildfire, the letter continued.

Neither the USFS nor the BLM are mandated to manage for zero risk/zero tolerance when looking at species viability. These actions call into question the USFS's species viability rule as potentially being outside the legal authority Congress has granted through the multiple use statutes directing management of federal lands.

In conclusion, the following recommends were presented:
  • Collaborative efforts should be undertaken to identify and develop site-specific solutions to make available and offer alternative allotments to the domestic sheep operator to be displaced, which are similar in forage amounts and types, capacity, water, ease of access, season of use and proximity to those allotments from which the operator is being displaced. The vacated allotments should be reallocated to forage uses, which do not conflict with bighorn sheep.
  • Place the alternative allotment - area the operator is being moved to - on the rescissions schedule, under the authority Congress granted the agency, in order to fulfill any requirements and compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
  • If domestic sheep operators are to be relocated, the agency should not remove grazing permittees from their currently used sheep grazing allotments until the identified alternative allotments have the proper NEPA analysis completed as well as the completion of any other procedural and environmental clearances required by federal statutes or regulations, including the resolution of any administrative appeals and judicial reviews of agency decisions.
"The leadership and support shown by the 37 U.S. Senators and Representatives is tremendous and much needed to address this serious threat to sheep production" said Peter Orwick, executive director of the American Sheep Industry Association. "In just a few months, the fate of numerous sheep ranches in four states will be decided. If grazing is eliminated without the offer of viable alternative country, they may not stay be able to stay in operation. The plan today does NOT require an offer of alternative grazing and, as happened in Idaho under a similar situation, one ranch was lost entirely and two greatly reduced production."

Signing the letter in support of the sheep industry were: Sens. John Barrasso (Wyo.), John Cornyn (Texas), Mike Crapo (Idaho), Michael Enzi (Wyo.), Orrin Hatch (Utah), John Hoeven (N.D.), Mike Lee (Utah), James Risch (Idaho) and John Thune (S.D.) and Reps. Mark Amodei (Nev.), Rob Bishop (Utah), Jason Chaffetz (Utah), Mike Coffman (Colo.), Mike Conaway (Texas), Kevin Cramer (N.D.), Steve Daines (Mont.), Jeff Denham (Calif.), Trent Franks (Ariz.), Cory Gardner (Colo.), Paul Gosar (Ariz.), Doc Hasting (Wash.), Joe Heck (Nev.), Raul Labrador (Idaho), Doug LaMalfa (Calif.), Doug Lamborn (Colo.), Cynthia Lummis (Wyo.), Jim Matheson (Utah), Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), Tom McClintock (Calif.), Kristi Noem (S.D.), Devin Nunes (Calif.), Steve Pearce (N.M.), Kurt Schrader (Ore.), Mike Simpson (Idaho), Scott Tipton (Colo.), David Valadao (Calif.) and Greg Walden (Ore.).

To read the letter in its entirety, go to www.sheepusa.org/IssuesPrograms_Issues_Bighorn.