Bighorn Sheep Victory in Payette National Forest

06-13-2011 // NWF

It looks like America’s iconic bighorn sheep will be regaining their home on the range. In a landmark decision Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell approved a management plan to phase out domestic sheep grazing on 70,000 acres of bighorn habitat in Payette National Forest. This decision brings to a head a decades-old conflict between the sheep industry and conservationists.

Bighorn Sheep

For years Rocky Mountain bighorn populations have been declining in a developing crisis as wild sheep caught pneumonia from their domestic cousins. This disease killed over 1,000 wild sheep in more than a dozen herds across the west, with numbers dropping steadily in the 1980s. By 1998, Rocky Mountain populations were cut by over half, estimated at fewer than 30,000 animals.

This decline is unacceptable to several conservation groups and to the Nez Perce, who have treaty rights to bighorns in the Hells and Salmon River Canyons. The wild sheep are culturally important to tribal members who have historically used the animals’ curved horns for bows and their thin, tough hides to make clothing.

The issue intensified in 2007 in the Payette National Forest, where disease was killing bighorns. The U.S. Forest Service, moving toward a collision with the Idaho Woolgrowers Association and the industry it represents, determined that under its planning regulations, the bighorns took precedence over domestic sheep grazing on leased forest lands. Ranchers protested that there weren’t any bighorn left in the area and that even if the bighorn were dying, the domestic sheep were not to blame. NWF and biologists of the Nez Perce tribe collaborated to implement a radio-collar study of bighorns to monitor location and health.

The Nez Perce and NWF sought to help ranchers find new allotments to graze their sheep but ranchers who leased grassland on the Payette refused. “Early on we said, ‘Let’s see if we can resolve this,’” recalls Steve Torbit, executive director of NWF’s Rocky Mountain Regional Center in Boulder, Colorado. “But it soon became apparent to us that many sheep operators would rather fight than win,” which triggered a series of lawsuits and state legislative fights.

Moving Into Legalese

The Western Watersheds Project, the Hells Canyon Preservation Council and the Wilderness Society sued to require the U.S. Forest Service to enforce its policy of protecting bighorn habitat. In 2008, U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill ruled that ranchers were barred from grazing sheep in the Payette.

In April 2009 the Idaho Woolgrowers Association pressed the state legislature to require the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to kill bighorns when they came in contact with domestic sheep, posing a major threatto the populations. Although federal land agencies such as the Forest Service and the BLM have jurisdiction over wildlife habitat on public land, states usually have control over wildlife within their borders.

Meanwhile, Suzanne Rainville, supervisor of Payette National Forest, was rewriting the forest management plan to more adequately protect bighorns. With Winmill’s decision in hand, Rainville began to phase out domestic sheep grazing on 70,000 acres of bighorn habitat. The case eventually reached the chief Tidwell. His approval of the plan sets the stage for further litigation.

“Tidwell’s decision is one of the most rigorously scientific decisions I have ever encountered by the Forest Service in my career,” Torbit says, with major implications for the future rights of wildlife to occupy public lands. “Now it’s time for the producers and wildlife folks to roll up our sleeves and work together to find areas suitable for domestic sheep.&rdquo

Torbit and other bighorn advocates favors a collaborative process that brings ranchers, sportsmen, tribes and conservationists together to protect the range and wildlife but still allows ranchers to thrive. “What we’re interested in is grazing where it makes the most sense without having unacceptable effects on wildlife,” Torbit says.

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