Friday, February 15, 2008

Sheep versus sheep

Idaho adopts interim policy to curtail spread of disease

Express Staff Writer

It's another example of the New and Old West coming into conflict. This time it's bighorn sheep versus domestic sheep or, more specifically, wildlife advocates versus the sheep herding industry.

During a telephone conference call yesterday, Feb. 14, the Idaho Fish and Game Commission adopted an interim strategy for separating bighorn sheep from domestic sheep.

The policy establishes buffer zones between occupied bighorn sheep range and sheep allotments on federal land statewide. Where the two overlap, however, bighorn sheep will be moved or killed.

The Nez Perce Tribe, as well as sportsmen's groups, environmentalists and ranchers, have been watching closely as the state of Idaho and U.S. Forest Service attempt to sort out the problem.

So, what's the problem?

"It's been known for 30 to 40 years that when domestic sheep mix with bighorn sheep populations, the domestic sheep transfer diseases to the bighorn sheep, and there have been some big population die-offs," said Kurt Mack, Nez Perce Tribe rare species coordinator. "We're not sure what the pathogen is. The bighorn sheep die of pneumonia."

Fish and Game's new strategy came in response to Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter's call for a policy to manage the interaction between the herds by Feb. 15. The governor established a working group led by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and the Idaho Department of Agriculture in response to judicial orders requiring sheep ranchers to pull their sheep off Hells Canyon allotments.

But Mack said there's a problem with the state's approach.

"It turns the science upside down," he said. "It creates these no-sheep buffers. What it does is it puts the burden of separation solely on bighorns and not on domestics. For one, the domestics are the lethal agent causing the population decline in bighorns.

"This policy says we're not going to manage the lethal agent. We're going to manage the victims. They're killing bighorns to save bighorns."

Although the Nez Perce Tribe has been focusing its efforts in the Hells Canyon and Salmon River canyon areas of the Payette National Forest, the proximity of bighorn and domestic herds is a problem that plays out throughout Idaho, both with mountain and desert populations of bighorn sheep.

Prior to the introduction of sheep grazing to Idaho, there were tens of thousands of bighorn sheep. That number has dropped to a couple of thousand.

The Hailey-based Western Watersheds Project alleges that in the South Hills portions of the Sawtooth National Forest, south of Twin Falls, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game has long been considering depleting or eliminating bighorn herds to accommodate domestic sheep ranching.

Jon Marvel, the organization's executive director, contended that that is one of the reasons the department claimed he shoved a Fish and Game commissioner at a meeting in December. According to Marvel, it was merely a smear campaign meant to distance the agency from the perception that it is aligned with the environmental group.

Fish and Game officials said Marvel had been unnecessarily aggressive, and issued a memo to their employees that they should not interact with him. That memo was leaked to the press.

"It was clear that the Fish and Game commissioners who are making this, or attempting to make this (alleged shoving) a story, and appear to have succeeded, are not interested in knowing what happened," Marvel said in late January. "But they are very interested in denigrating me and distracting Idaho citizens from the policy issues of killing bighorn sheep and wolves in Idaho."

The perception that Fish and Game and Western Watersheds Project were aligned could have come from sheep ranchers themselves.

In a Dec. 24, 2007, letter to Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, South Hills rancher Don Pickett, president of the Pickett Ranch & Sheep Co., wrote:

"It is consistent with our experience to believe that IDF&G may be communicating with Western Watersheds Project with the concerted desire and/or intent of having our sheep removed from all or part of our federal lands, although such motivation may be difficult or impossible to prove.

"Please help us maintain our sheep operation by facilitating whatever process is necessary to relocate these few head of bighorns across the valley to some other location such as the Jim Sage or Albion area."

There are two strains of bighorn sheep in Idaho, the desert and mountain bighorn. Those in the headwaters of the Salmon River and throughout the Snake and lower Salmon River canyons are mountain bighorn. Those in the south hills and Bruneau and Owyhee canyon areas are desert bighorn.

Bighorn sheep graze on grasses and browse on shrubs, particularly in fall and winter, and seek minerals at natural salt licks. They are well adapted to climbing steep terrain where they seek cover from predators such as coyotes, eagles and cougars. They live in large herds, and during the fall rut, rams will seek out domestic sheep herds, Mack said.

There are concurrent processes seeking resolution of the sheep-versus-sheep disease conundrum. The Nez Perce Tribe has been most directly involved in a working group convened by the Payette National Forest.

In 2005 the chief of the U.S. Forest Service upheld an appeal of the Payette Forest Plan by the Nez Perce Tribe and others on the grounds that the plan did not protect the viability of bighorn sheep.

"Without immediate removal of domestic sheep from occupied bighorn sheep habitat bighorn sheep within that habitat are likely at risk of extirpation," the Forest Service concluded.

The Payette National Forest was directed to amend its forest plan to provide better regulatory safeguards to ensure bighorn sheep viability.

By 2007, almost two years after the directive was issued, the Forest Service had not modified domestic sheep grazing regulations, prompting advocacy groups led by Western Watersheds Project to sue the Forest Service in federal court. The suit seeks to prevent the agency from allowing bighorn and domestic sheep from coexisting on several allotments in Hells Canyon and the Salmon River canyon.

Last summer, the Payette National forest assembled a group consisting of representatives from the Forest Service, Nez Perce Tribe, Shoshone-Bannock Tribe, Shoshone-Paiute Tribe, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, and the states of Oregon, Washington and Idaho to assist in developing a set of recommendations that will become a forest plan amendment.

The draft plan, already released, would require ranchers to keep their sheep away from bighorn sheep-occupied range.

The Idaho Woolgrowers Association had suggested that if the issue wasn't resolved, it would consider introducing legislation in this year's legislative session moving control of bighorn sheep from Fish and Game to the Agriculture Department.

Fish and Game Director Cal Groen said the commission's recently adopted interim strategy would be sent to Otter to meet the Feb. 15 deadline. The working group will continue to develop a permanent strategy.

The Nez Perce Tribe was not happy.

"The tribe believes that the Payette National Forest's interim actions reducing domestic sheep grazing in or adjacent to occupied bighorn sheep habitat is a prudent first step toward resolving this issue," said Samuel Penney, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribe.

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