Western Watersheds Project’s litigation and recent scientific studies changing the playing field.

Bighorn sheep in the Salmon River Canyon of Idaho © Ken Cole

Bighorn sheep in the Salmon River Canyon of Idaho © Ken Cole

Across the West domestic sheep operations threaten the viability of bighorn sheep populations and have caused serious declines because of the diseases they carry. Last winter there were ten populations that suffered from pneumonia outbreaks and many more are suffering the lingering effects of previous outbreaks which reduces lamb survival to very low levels for many years after the initial outbreak.

In Hell’s Canyon bighorn sheep are only a small fraction of the estimated 10,000 capacity. These sheep have faced a declining population because the lamb survival is too low to replace the adults that die of other causes. The Salmon River Canyon and Central Idaho herds have faced many of these same issues but they are the last remaining native bighorn in the state.

Western Watersheds Project has been working very hard to get the US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to develop scientifically based policies which would effectively keep bighorn sheep from ever coming into contact with domestic sheep. Unfortunately political interference by the woolgrowers and politicians has prevented the agencies from tackling this issue head on. Recently, though, the Payette National Forest decided to close about 70% of the sheep grazing area due to concerns of disease. This is one of the first cracks in the armor of the oligarchical system which holds great political sway but provides little, if any, economic benefit to the public for the subsidies it provides.

The Payette Bighorn Sheep Viability Decision has been appealed by Western Watersheds Project; the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife; the State of Washington, Department of Fish & Wildlife; the Nez Perce Tribe with other groups; and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation primarily because it implements the decision gradually over a period of three years rather making the closures all at once. The Idaho Woolgrowers Association et. al.; Soulen Livestock Company; Frank Shirts Jr., Shirts Brothers Sheep, & Ronald and Leslie Shirts have all appealed the decision because it threatens their interests. One glaring absence is the Idaho Department of Fish and Game who recently issued a Draft Bighorn Sheep Management Plan which essentially maintains the status quo because it feels it has no power to influence the decisions of the Federal land management agencies. This would be an incorrect assumption if it weren’t for the political interference of the small but politically powerful group of woolgrowers on the legislature.

Domestic sheep on the road © Ken Cole

Domestic sheep on the road © Ken Cole

For anyone interested, these appeals are available at the Payette National Forest website.

There has been coverage in the national media about the recent study which confirms that domestic sheep diseases kill bighorn sheep and the ongoing wranglings of the different players involved.

Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep ravaged by disease.
Scientific American

Meanwhile, there is an ongoing outbreak in Wyoming among bighorn sheep that have suffered from domestic sheep diseases for some time.

Wyoming Game and Fish officials find pneumonia in Whiskey Basin bighorn sheep
Casper Star Tribune

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About The Author

Ken Cole

Ken Cole, Buffalo Field Campaign‘s Executive Director, is a 5th generation Idahoan, an avid fly fisherman, wildlife enthusiast, and photographer. He was formerly the Idaho Director for Western Watersheds Project.

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‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

~ Edward Abbey

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