Bighorn Sheep over Grazing Sheep

bighorn sheep

bighorn sheep

The USDA decided concluded a grueling 7-year legal battle in Idaho by pushing out grazing livestock sheep from parts of  the 2 million acre Payette National Forest in favor of the dwindling bighorn sheep. The Forest Service says that 346,000 acres will now be off limits to ranchers “to separate Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep from domestic sheep and goats, lessening the chance of disease transmission,” in this case pneumonia. Ranchers say that’s 70% of where they are now.

This is playing out like a reverse of the Yellowstone bison drama, where ranchers say they fear their cattle will catch brucellosis from wild bison, so the the Montana Department of Livestock removes bison and sends them to slaughter. Folks fighting for the bison, like the Buffalo Field Campaign, say the brucellosis claim is a complete myth since cattle definitely get the disease from elk (which roam freely) but nobody knows if they get it from cattle.

In the case of the bighorn sheep, the disease in question is pneumonia that has caused periodic mass die-offs of bighorn sheep, though no one is sure how. “While much of the evidence for disease transmission from domestic sheep to free-ranging bighorn sheep is circumstantial, a large literature base has emerged that documents bighorn sheep die-offs near domestic sheep,” the Forest Service final report says. Seven mass die-offs have been documented since 1971. The area originally had something like 10,000 bighorn sheep, but now has about 1,400, divided into two populations–down by 47% since 1981.  Ranchers used to graze about 175,000 sheep in the forest, but now it’s down to four ranchers and 18,000 animals.

A non-bylined article in Ag Weekly describes the decision as a senseless and whimsical decision forced by “the anti-livestock group Western Watersheds Project.” They don’t buy the science: “Groups seeking to remove all livestock grazing from federal lands are using bighorn sheep habitat as a surrogate to remove domestic sheep grazing allotments from the forest.”

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