Bighorn Sheep and other Public Land Issues
March 31, 2005
By Ron Daines
March/April 2005 -- The issue of introducing bighorn sheep across the West has moved front and center, alongside wolf reintroduction as a major concern to livestock producers.
Nearly every Western state, from California to Colorado and from Montana to New Mexico, has seen reintroductions of bighorn sheep. And in many cases, sheep producers suffer, often because of myths and misconceptions about wild and domestic sheep.
Wyoming has taken the issue by the horns, with interested parties working together to craft the Wyoming Bighorn/Domestic Sheep Plan.
Bryce Reece, executive director of the Wyoming Wool Growers Association, explained that the plan took shape over three-and-a-half years. The plan is several hundred pages long and says, in part that:
Reece said that if others back out of the plan, the wool growers are not bound by it. Further, if another animal plan, for example for grizzly bears, is laid over an adjudicated area, the producers will back out.
- both domestic and bighorn sheep are important to Wyoming and both should be protected;
- diseases, especially pasteurella, are a major concern; and
- sources of bighorn die-off, including shipping fever, environmental stresses and predation, should be addressed.
- An important goal is no-net-loss statewide of domestic sheep industry grazing units. If a producer must lose grazing units because of bighorn sheep, those will be made up elsewhere.
He said cobbling the plan together has been a challenge.
"We had struggles and we had problems, and sometimes it seemed like a nightmare," said Reece. "I'm not sure we've got it solved. But we have a plan that may serve as a model to other states."
Wyoming producer and American Sheep Industry Association (ASI) Director of Natural Resources Consultant, Tom McDonnell, agrees.
"I think it's a good model," said McDonnell. "We don't have a Western state that hasn't had problems with bighorn sheep."
He estimated that 100,000 head of domestic sheep throughout the West have been affected by introductions of bighorn sheep, adding his belief that part of the environmentalists' agenda is to use the reintroductions to eliminate domestic sheep grazing allotments.
At the heart of the conflict is the subject of animal health. Reintroduction advocates say that diseases transmitted from domestic sheep are the cause of bighorn die off.
Hudson Glimp, Ph. D., a sheep specialist from the University of Nevada Reno, cited evidence that other factors may be at work. He said DNA taken from all of the domestic and bighorn sheep in Nevada shows that the incidence of the disease pasteurella, the major disease of concern, is the same in both wild and domestic sheep - between 20 percent and 30 percent.
Glimp said reintroduced bighorn sheep often suffer from shipping stress and, once transplanted, suffer additional stress from predation, nutritional deficiencies and improper habitat.
"They've put sheep in an area north of Yosemite, where there's now 35 feet of snow," he said.
Another divisive issue, particularly in California and Nevada, is the listing of the Sierra-Nevada bighorn sheep as an endangered species. Again, said Glimp, sound science does not back the claim that any of the bighorn sheep are genetically distinctive and worthy of protection.
He said genetic DNA samples have been taken from bighorn sheep in Nevada, California and Arizona.
"All are genetically identical," said Glimp. "There is no scientific base for declaring the Sierra-Nevada herd as endangered."
Jeff Eisenberg, executive director of the Public Lands Council (PLC), told sheep producers that his organization would lend its support to help resolve sheep industry problems related to bighorn sheep.
While the concerns over bighorn sheep are sharpening into focus, wolf recovery and its attendant problems continue to vex the livestock industry. McDonnell said a major concern is the tightening budget at the federal level. That means a greater financial burden for states in primary recovery areas - around $3.2 million in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho and $1.7 million in Arizona and New Mexico - as well as for surrounding states into which wolves are migrating, Utah, Nevada, Colorado, Washington and Oregon.
To help ASI members put wolf issues into perspective, Don Lay and Clay Campbell from British Columbia, where wolves have always roamed, outlined activities undertaken by an Agriculture Environmental Partnership Initiative.
The initiative, funded at $500,000 a year for three years, undertook a three-pronged approach to wolf management that involved prevention, targeted removal and compensation to producers, primarily cattle producers, for predation.
Lay said their experience shows that livestock killing will stop by removing the offending predator, usually an alpha female, who determines where the pack goes and what the menu will be.
"If you take out the offender, the others in the pack will go back to doing what they normally do," said Lay. "There are a very small percentage of wolves that will kill livestock. I've had ranchers tell me they had a pack of wolves come through their herds and not even lift their heads."
He acknowledged that there are differences between long-established Canadian wolf packs and those in the United States, which are still acclimating to new territories and new sources of food.
"You've got to understand the wolf, understand their politics and use that against them," he said. "The wolf has never changed - he adapts to whatever situation he's presented."
In addition to wildlife issues, livestock producers are faced with concerns over the security of their grazing permits and whether Congress will embrace proposals to fund a buyout of the permits.
Eisenberg said the PLC opposes the environmental community's attempts to persuade Congress to fund the buyout of grazing permits, an issue Eisenberg said is driving a wedge into the ranching community. He said he doesn't think the buyout plan is going anywhere legislatively. But he added that the livestock community is all over the board on the issue.
"Enough ranchers are interested in selling their permits that it's having a corrosive effect," Eisenberg said, urging ranchers to find unity on the subject.