By ROB FRASER
Wild bighorn sheep of the Salmon River Mountains of Idaho, whose ancestors date to ancient times, stoically carry out their existence unaware of a controversy that has embroiled the community around them. Domestic sheep have been pulled off 70 percent of the Payette National Forest after a ruling by the forest supervisor based on data demonstrating that domestic sheep can spread bacterial pneumonia to bighorn sheep. But domestic sheep operators backed by the powerful American Sheep Industry have now unleashed a vigorous campaign to force a rider onto an appropriations bill that would prevent federal land managers from doing anything about disease transmission for five years. The sheep industry has said it wants to see more collaboration with bighorn advocates and that a vaccine, which will enable domestic sheep to graze in bighorn country without infecting wild bighorns, is currently being developed. Ironically, they also argue there is no proof that bighorns contract bacterial pneumonia from domestic sheep in the first place.
In 2008, the Idaho Bighorn Sheep/Domestic Sheep Collaborative was created to find a workable solution for the sheep industry and bighorns. This collaboration dissolved due to the Idaho Wool Growers Association's ramrodding a bill through the Legislature directing the Department of Fish and Game to develop cooperative management practices with grazing-permit holders within 90 days, and repudiating the science of disease transmission between domestic sheep and bighorns. That rendered the collaborative irrelevant and nonproductive, making talks of future collaborative efforts difficult. The breakdown of the collaborative placed the decision-making process in the hands of people like Suzanne Rainville, supervisor of the Payette National Forest. Rainville and her team of biologists, in an exhaustive review process, gathered scientific data demonstrating that domestic sheep transmit Mannheimia haemolytica to bighorn sheep. A single incident can cause die-offs of an entire bighorn population. Rainville ordered the removal of domestic sheep from areas in the Payette National Forest where contact between the two species could occur.
Now the sheep industry has redoubled its efforts to convince legislators in Washington, D.C., to attach a rider to an Interior appropriations bill that will put domestic sheep back into wild bighorn sheep areas. The sheep industry has presented the contradiction that a cure-all vaccine is imminent, and at the same time argues that domestic sheep do not transmit pathogens to bighorns. At a time when this country is under financial stress, why would we advocate spending millions of research dollars on a vaccination program for a problem that does not exist?
The native bighorn sheep populations such as those in the Salmon River Mountains are an icon of Idaho and vitally important to sportsmen. We can't take what we have in Idaho for granted and let politics trump science, forcing our land managers to do nothing while domestic sheep roam alongside wild bighorn sheep.
Rob Fraser is president of the Idaho Wildlife Federation.