SAFE PLACE TO ROAM: Wyoming bills would protect domestic sheep grazing | TSLN.com

SAFE PLACE TO ROAM: Wyoming bills would protect domestic sheep grazing

Angus M. Thuermer Jr.
for Wyofile

A bill to remove or relocate 60 bighorn sheep if they curtail stockmen's domestic sheep grazing on federal land amounts to "extortion," a lawmaker said last week.

Despite the objection the Wyoming House passed Senate File 133 — Bighorn sheep relocation 41-17 Monday. The bill targets the Darby Mountain herd of wild bighorns that live in the Wyoming Range of the Bridger-Teton National Forest. The U.S. Forest Service administers domestic grazing permits in the area and stockmen are fearful their grazing could be cut to protect wild sheep from disease.

During debate on the house floor last week, Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne) called the bill and its tit-for-tat approach "the wrong way to do policy in the state. We're basically playing chicken with the feds. It's basically more like extortion," he said.

The bill provides $37,500 to Game and Fish for "removing or relocating the Darby Mountain big horn sheep herd from the Bridger-Teton National Forest boundaries." Removal would occur if grazing is reduced by the Forest Service or even a court ruling. Removal would be in accordance with the 2004 plan that designates the Darby Mountain herd as one living in a "non-emphasis" area (see map).

Threats of relocation would presumably deter the Forest Service or any conservation group from seeking to protect Darby Mountain bighorns from domestic sheep diseases by curtailing domestic grazing allotments. As Zwonitzer explained the bill, "If you dare try that (grazing reduction) we're just going to move the bighorn sheep."

House colleagues approved the bill after the Senate had also passed it.

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One representative said the state could save money by having hunters kill off the herd. "Wouldn't it be easier to have more bighorn sheep licenses down there," Rep. Stan Blake (D-Green River) said. He voted against the bill on third reading.

The bill now heads to Gov. Matt Mead along with another sheep measure, SF 134 – Bighorn sheep plan, that codifies a 2004 state plan for managing conflicts between domestic and wild sheep. Senate File 134 also passed the House Monday on a 55-3 vote. Removal of the Darby Mountain sheep would be undertaken in accordance with that plan.

Lawmakers touted the 2004 plan and the bill codifying it as one that was supported by all groups, including conservationists, stockmen and women. "Even the far-left wildlife groups were at least lukewarm in favor of this," Rep. John Eklund (R-Cheyenne) said during floor debate last week.

Lawmakers want any changes to grazing to be negotiated through the plan, which seeks "to maintain healthy bighorn sheep populations while sustaining an economically viable domestic sheep industry." In contrast, elimination of grazing on the Payette National Forest in Idaho, action spurred by a lawsuit, was "very abrupt, very final," Eklund said.

The bill targeting the Darby Herd is "simply a stopgap to make sure nothing happens," Rep. Robert McKim (R-Afton) said. The bill would "counteract" any grazing reduction until the Forest Service adopts the Wyoming plan, McKim said.

Wyoming owns wildlife like bighorn sheep even though many live much, if not all, of their lives on federal property. Talk of eliminating a bighorn sheep herd comes as the state's population lingers 18 percent below objective. Game and Fish figures show 6,689 bighorns statewide among herds with estimates. The agency's objective is 8,175 bighorns.

To achieve its goal, Game and Fish would have to see current wild bighorn numbers grow by 22 percent, according to calculations made by WyoFile. (Yellowstone National Park counts 378 bighorns in that federal reserve.)

The Darby Mountain herd in the Wyoming Range has averaged 57 animals between 2008-2012, according to the Wyoming Game and Fish job completion report for 2013. The agency goal is for 150 animals. It says the herd is 60 percent below objective.

Lawmakers see fewer sheep

Legislators said there weren't that many, but seemed to disagree on the actual number of animals. "It's 19 animals, from what I remember ," Rep. John Freeman (D-Green River) said, referring to testimony from a committee hearing.

"We're talking about 13 head of bighorns versus 82,000 head of domestic sheep this could potentially impact," said Rep. Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle).

The law to remove bighorns is necessary because the Forest Service — particularly Region 4 headquartered in Ogden, Utah — "requires a 15-mile buffer zone" between bighorn sheep and domestic stock, McKim said. He made his statements despite a Feb. 20 letter from regional forester Nora Rasure to Gov. Mead that says her agency would not cut domestic grazing.

Rasure said the Bridger-Teton subscribed to the Wyoming sheep plan. "The Plan identifies the Darby herd as a 'non-emphasis' herd and we do not have any current desire to address risks that domestic sheep may represent to that herd," she wrote. Bighorn managers are wary of domestic sheep because the latter can pass on deadly pneumonia, which has decimated several wild sheep herds in the state.

Nevertheless, lawmakers accused the Forest Service of being non-responsive and overstepping its authority. The Wyoming plan, "that is not what Region 4 goes by," McKim said. Region 4 is the collection of national forests that Rasure oversees from Ogden, Utah.

Eklund also complained about the Forest Service's supposed lack of response to domestic sheep grazing concerns. "We're not able to get them to the table," he said of the Forest Service.

The new laws are needed because Rasure and officials working for her have used sensitive species to usurp Wyoming's right to manage wildlife, lawmakers said. "It wouldn't be necessary if it weren't for the overreach of the federal government," Rep. Jerry Paxton (R-Encampment) said.

Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) said ongoing problems with the Forest Service "makes me madder than a hornet." The Forest Service is using its authority "to actually provide policy on population management," Sommers said. Determining wildlife populations is the job of the state, but the federal government oversteps, he said. "I see it all the time on the forest," he said. "Somehow we need to push back on this."

Codifying the Wyoming sheep plan is necessary "so that can't be used as an excuse that Wyoming is not providing for the management of this species," he said.

One bighorn supporter said lawmakers are the ones who are overstepping. "I think this is really overreach by the Legislature in managing wildlife," said Steve Kilpatrick, director of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation. A working group already operates under the 2004 Wyoming sheep plan to manage conflicts, he said. The recent letter from the Forest Service also makes the bills unnecessary.

Bighorn sheep belong in the Wyoming Range, he said. "Wildlife people have spent over three-quarters of a million dollars working with the sheep industry trying to reduce the conflict," he said. The Forest Service itself is required to manage for indigenous species, he said. "That's part of the rules and regulations."

A law to protect ranching families

The bill aims to protect sheep herding families, including one that has been in the business for 100 years, Rep. Fred Baldwin (R-Afton) said. "If we do not do something with these (wild) sheep herds… the potential (is) they will be out of the sheep business," he said of stockmen.

The 2004 plan divides Wyoming into core habitat and less important "non-emphasis" areas. Legislators painted the Darby herd as dispensable because it is in a non-emphasis area.

Eklund criticized "non-essential herds that were transplanted," and pointed to the Darby Mountain population. "They don't have any winter range or they starve to death," he said. "It's just a no-win deal for a lot of them. They kind of languish along."

The latest Game and Fish report on Darby Mountain sheep says the population "has stabilized at approximately 60 sheep." A hunter killed a trophy bighorn ram in the area in 2008. Hunting has stopped, however, because of a lack of mature rams and poor lamb recruitment. It will not be resumed until the herd grows and produces some older rams. The report also says the area is historic bighorn sheep country.

"The last wild sheep occupied this range in the early 1960s," the 2013 job completion report says. "Competition with domestic sheep and illegal harvest were believed responsible for their extirpation."

In 1981 Game and Fish and the Forest Service transplanted 35 sheep from near Dubois to Fish Creek Mountain, right near Mount Darby. (Maps name the peak Mount Darby but Game and Fish calls the herd the Darby Mountain herd.) Domestic sheep had been removed from allotments on Fish Creek and Mount Darby before the first transplant. Another transplant of 25 sheep occurred in 1987.

"Summer dispersal of bighorn sheep have been documented along the crest of the Wyoming Mountain Range in the vicinity of the headwaters of South Cottonwood Creek, McDougal Peak, Gunsight Pass, Middle Piney Creek, Straight Creek, North Piney Creek and Roaring Fork drainages as well," the report says. "This dispersal has resulted in bighorn sheep and domestic sheep mingling on summer ranges in several active sheep allotments."

Despite the plain language of the relocation bill, nobody wants bighorn sheep to be moved or killed, one legislator said. "We want the bighorn sheep left alone," Rep. Eklund said. "We don't want them removed. That's the last thing in the world we want."

Jim Magagna, Wyoming Stock Growers Association executive vice president, supported the two bills, but agreed bighorn sheep shouldn't be killed or moved. They should remain if they can survive, but domestic sheep grazing shouldn't be curtailed. "We don't want to see them removed," he said.

Moving or removing bighorn sheep would bring bad publicity to the state, Kilpatrick said. "Any way you try to move those sheep would be painting a black picture for Game and Fish, politicians and all involved," he said. "I just don't think we want that on the national news. I don't want my picture in the paper holding a lamb bighorn sheep."

The Wyoming sheep plan is officially called the "State-wide Bighorn/Domestic sheep Interaction Working Group" final report 2004. "Existing and/or potential conflicts between domestic and both core native and transplanted bighorn sheep should not be used as surrogate issues to force or effect resource management decisions," it says. "The retirement, reduction, or removal of grazing allotments and management changes should be only on a willing permittee basis, not under a sense of urgency or duress." F

–reprinted with permission from Wyofile