For more than six years, the U.S. Forest Service has wrestled with whether to continue to allow domestic sheep grazing in the Weminuche Wilderness, despite the risk it poses to the wild bighorn.
Recent developments signal the issue won’t be decided any time soon: The Forest Service is likely throwing out a previous study that was clear in its determination that bighorns are at heightened risk for disease in the presence of domestic sheep.
“We are looking at a minimum of four to five more years of the status quo, continuing grazing those high-risk allotments and putting those herds at risk,” said Terry Meyers, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society. “That’s a problem for the bighorns and the Forest Service.”
If the animals come into contact, domestic sheep can pass a deadly bacteria to bighorns, which the native animal can in turn bring back to its herd and potentially cause widespread die-off.
Cattle and other livestock do not carry the same threat to bighorns.
In recent years, values have clashed between ranchers, whose livelihoods depend on grazing on public lands, and conservationists, who are fighting for the long-term survival of bighorn sheep.
The issue came to a head in Southwest Colorado in 2012, when the Forest Service began reviewing whether to renew grazing permits in the Weminuche Wilderness, which belong to Ignacio rancher J. Paul Brown.
In February 2016, the Forest Service released a draft environmental impact statement that determined sheep grazing would continue in the Weminuche, despite clear concerns raised in the report for the bighorns.
“We’re mandated for multiple-use on this landscape, which is deemed as suitable for grazing,” Jared Whitmer, the Forest Service’s project manager for the EIS, said at the time.
A final decision on the matter was supposed to be announced in summer 2017. But the Forest Service has repeatedly delayed its final determination.
Recently, the Forest Service listed its sheep grazing analysis as “canceled.”
Gathering more dataKara Chadwick, forest supervisor for the San Juan National Forest, said the sheep grazing analysis was listed as canceled because the project is on hold while various agencies gather more data on the domestic sheep-bighorn issue.
“Because we are collecting blood work and radio-collar data for an undetermined timeframe, no analysis is currently happening and so the project shows as canceled in the database,” Chadwick wrote in an email.
Recently, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has been radio-collaring the elusive high-country animals to gain a better understanding of how bighorns use the high country, and if they travel into Brown’s grazing allotments.
Chadwick deferred all questions about the radio-collaring project to Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Scott Wait, a senior terrestrial biologist for CPW, did not return calls seeking comment for this story.
Joe Lewandowski, spokesman for CPW, said in October that the sample size for bighorn collaring so far is small, and there’s not much data at this point.
But conservation advocates like Meyers said the science is clear that domestic sheep create a serious danger to the long-term survival of bighorns.
Meyers said the Forest Service’s own EIS in 2016, although it recommends allowing grazing to continue, says renewing those permits would come at a high risk to the bighorn sheep herds.
The Forest Service, in that study, recommended that domestic sheep and bighorns be separated, but Meyers said that isn’t realistic to continue to graze domestic sheep in close proximity to bighorns, an animal that’s known to wander.
“Based on the analysis in 2016, if they renewed those permits, they would be in violation of their own forest plan,” Meyers said. “Presumably, that’s why they continue to delay the decision. And it’s a tough decision to make.”
Separation is crucialThe Weminuche Wilderness is Colorado’s largest wilderness area at 760 square miles. The Forest Service’s proposed decision in 2016 would keep 50,000 acres open as summer range for about 2,200 of Brown’s domestic sheep.
But in the area that extends from the northern end of Missionary Ridge toward the Pine River, there’s the potential for habitat overlap for the estimated 500 native bighorns spread out in about three herds.
Dan Parkinson, an advocate with Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, said the more study that’s going into bighorns, the more researchers are learning about the large size of their ranges.
“We’re learning they need elbow room,” he said.
One radio-collared bighorn was tracked traveling from the Pine River all the way to Highland Mary Lakes near Silverton. The sheep made the trip through rugged, mountainous terrain, about a 21 air-mile journey, twice, Parkinson said.
And domestic sheep also have been known to wander.
In October, the Forest Service and Parks and Wildlife were alerted of a stray domestic sheep from another herder, not Brown, that was dangerously close to a bighorn herd in the Twilight Range, in another area of the San Juan Mountains.
Forest Service and Parks and Wildlife crews, trudging into a snowstorm, were unable to find the domestic sheep. After the weather cleared, crews used a helicopter to track it. The sheep was eventually located and killed.
“These agencies know this is a potentially deadly situation for bighorns,” Parkinson said. “We need separation, or it’s a matter of time until we see a herd die-off.”
Parkinson said Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, along with Mountain Studies Institute, is organizing a citizen-led effort to track and spot bighorns throughout the Weminuche, as well as any stay domestic sheep.
Protecting a livelihoodRanchers with domestic sheep across the West are fighting this same battle to remain on public lands. In this sliver of the Weminuche Wilderness, it all comes down to one rancher, Brown, who has worked these lands for almost 50 years.
Brown has maintained all along that his family business relies on being able to graze on public land. Otherwise, he’d likely have to shut down.
“I love the bighorns, and I don’t want anything to hurt the bighorns,” Brown said. “But at the same time, I don’t want us to be put out of business without good reason to do that.”
Brown said the jury is still out on the science of whether domestic sheep transmit diseases to bighorns. And, Brown said he and his herders do everything possible to make sure sheep don’t escape or come into contact with the wild animals.
Brown has a 1,000-acre ranch in Ignacio, southeast of Durango, but he takes his sheep to feed on the vegetation of the high country wilderness during the summer and to a Bureau of Land Management holding in New Mexico in the winter.
In his 48 years of grazing in the Weminuche, Brown said he personally has never seen a bighorn.
“We’ve tried to do everything within our power to help, and not to hinder, the success of the bighorn,” he said. “We feel that obligation, so maybe we need a little more time to get some more science in there.”
Brown suspects that for many, the core of the issue is a blanket opposition to any grazing on public lands. He said this most recent, and personal, spat is just another example of that.
“They just want us off the public lands,” he said.
More time for studyTime and again, domestic sheep are being taken off the landscape to protect bighorns.
The most significant decision was in 2010, when the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Payette National Forest Service’s decision in Idaho to phase out active sheep permits because of the risk of disease transmission.
The San Juan National Forest’s Chadwick said the decision has no bearing on the grazing permits in the Weminuche Wilderness. She said “uncertain impacts from potential domestic sheep transmission to bighorn” warrant more study.
But Meyers fears continued study will keep the door open for disease transmission in the short term and that the Forest Service will use data from a small sample size of collared bighorns to alter the conclusion from two years ago that said the animals need separation.
He believes the delay is politically motivated from the agricultural industry.
“The ag industry has a lot of political influence on federal land management,” he said. “But I think it’s important for the agencies to understand there’s a great public value to having those bighorn sheep herds up there, healthy.”
firstname.lastname@example.orgThis article has been updated to correct the number of sheep in rancher J. Paul Brown’s herd.