An article in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle today discusses several recent incidents where small farm flocks of domestic sheep and goats have come into close contact with bighorn sheep and, in some cases, have caused large die-offs of bighorn sheep due to the pneumonia caused by pathogens transmitted from the domestic animals. In other cases state agencies have decided not to reintroduce bighorn sheep to areas because of the presence of domestic sheep on nearby private lands. Essentially, the livestock owners are dictating where a native and highly valued species can and can’t live while the public has no say.

When you come to understand the history of bighorn sheep populations in the west, you will know why there are so few of them remaining. Historically bighorn sheep inhabited large areas of the West and some estimates say there were approximately 2 million of them living here. They were on par with other ungulate species in the West and Native American people depended on them for survival in some parts of the west like central Idaho where they were far more numerous than they are now. Contrary to common wisdom, they weren’t restricted only to mountainous terrain and they did foray to nearby plains on a regular basis. Nowadays they are restricted mostly to remote mountainous areas primarily because those are the areas where there are few to no domestic sheep or goats. Even there, domestic sheep and goats exist in farm flocks on private lands and this places bighorn sheep in danger of contact with deadly pathogens. Even the most remote populations of bighorn sheep are at risk due the ability of bighorn sheep to foray very long distances while searching for mates. A bighorn sheep could easily roam into an area near Salmon, Riggins, Asotin, or Ellensberg and come into contact with domestic sheep then carry pathogens back to the larger population of bighorn sheep and wipe out the herd. It has happened and will happen again. The paradigm seems to be that the private property rights of a few individuals trumps everyone else’s rights to enjoy healthy, publicly owned wildlife, and to restore bighorn sheep to former habitats where they fulfill an important role in the ecology of the landscape.

Is it time to start thinking about a paradigm shift where owners of livestock are responsible for ensuring their livestock aren’t the source of this kind of conflict? Should domestic sheep and goat owners be required to use double fencing to ensure that wildlife such as bighorn sheep can’t interact with them and cause a die-off of entire herds? Should domestic sheep and goats be restricted entirely from areas where they are likely to cause such conflicts? Other groups of wildlife advocates may be hesitant to actually suggest such a paradigm shift because they fear the loss of financial or political support of their cause but I have no compunction against calling for such a dialogue.

All over the West the rights of livestock owners trump the rights of others to enjoy wildlife, to be safe on public highways, to enjoy their own land without livestock, or even enjoy their lands without fear of government trespass to remove wildlife deemed a threat to the livestock industry. It seems as if the rights of livestock are greater than the rights of people in many parts of the west. You have to look no farther than the nearest open range where you can be held liable for hitting a black cow standing in the middle of a highway at night during a rainstorm, even if you are injured or killed. Near West Yellowstone, Montana landowners have to suffer annual trespass by Montana Department of Livestock agents who are there to haze, capture and kill bison deemed a threat to livestock despite the fact that many landowners welcome them on their land. Other people have to suffer trespass of cattle on their property even though they have tried to fence them out and the cattle tear down their fences anyway.

The effects of livestock production in the West is not just restricted to these issues. They are broad and long lasting. Habitat, air, and water quality degradation, antibiotic resistant pathogens, imperilment of species, and widespread predator control are also among the conflicts caused by livestock. The livestock owner has no liability and the public is told they have to accept the conflicts caused by livestock. The livestock industry has effectively externalized their costs to society and made the public feel as if they are receiving some great service for it.

The list of conflicts caused by livestock goes on and on yet the paradigm among most people is that wildlife is the source of the conflict and not the livestock. Livestock owners should be liable for the conflict they create and be required to control their livestock, the wildlife and the public shouldn’t be made to suffer the consequences of the irresponsibility of livestock owners.

It is within the power of people to regulate and institute changes in how these issues are dealt with despite the present political climate. It is time for dialogue on these issues.

 
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About The Author

Ken Cole

Ken Cole, Western Watershed Project’s Idaho Director, is a 5th generation Idahoan, an avid fly fisherman, wildlife enthusiast, and photographer. He is also serves as a member of the board of directors for Buffalo Field Campaign.

35 Responses to Is it Time for Domestic Sheep Zoning Laws in the West?

  1. Ken- Any Bighorns seen on the plains were near the rocky breaks along the Missouri.
    Someone once remarked that Elk and Bighorns were plains animals that retreated to the mountains when the whiteman came. That erroneous observation has been repeated over and over. Elk were everywhere in the mountains and on the plains.
    Bighorn sheep are tied to rocky areas that allow them to get out of the reach of coyotes and wolves. This doesn’t mean the rocks have to be cliffs, just big enough that the Wolves and Coyotes cannot reach the Bighorns. They have to stay within sprinting distance of the rocks or the lambs are easy prey. I have watched ewes and larger lambs jump right over an attacking Coyote and escape. I have seen Bighorn rams run from Wolves, but stand their ground against Coyotes.
    I have watched Coyotes kill Bighorn lambs on two occasions when the Coyotes were able to sneak up along a cliff and cut a Bighorn band of ewes and lambs off from it’s escape route. I have also seen Dall Sheep and Bighorns escape from Wolves by getting to a steep area just ahead of the wolves.

    Bighorns can escape from Wolves easier than they can from the more agile Coyotes. I have watched bands of Bighorn ewes and lambs casually watching Wolves trotting nearby and then sprinting in panic for the rocks when a pair of Coyotes appeared on the ridge behind them.
    While a few Asiatic species of wild sheep have evolved long legs and can outrun wolves, the North American varieties are all sprinters.
    As for zoning domestic sheep and goats, I think that is a good first step toward banning them from the mountainous areas completely.

    • avatar Ken Cole says:

      I don’t dispute what you are saying Larry but there are accounts of them on the plains of southern Idaho somewhat distant from rocky terrain. I’m sure they didn’t stray long distance but they surely forayed across that kind of terrain to reach forage or new areas. They still do to some extent. To your point, you are correct that they strongly favor rough escape terrain.

      • avatar topher says:

        I remember reading somewhere that it was common to find bighorn skulls in the crevices on the desert near craters of the moon. I also see many abstract representations of bighorn in the local petroglyphs.

    • avatar Scott Slocum says:

      Larry and Ken: I guess one of the differences you two are talking about is summer range vs. winter range.

      • They do travel long distance to reach isolated suitable ranges. There are some reports of bighorns once inhabiting the Big Butte east of Arco, Idaho. The last time I was near the Big Butte, there was a large herd of domestic sheep grazing along the lower slopes.
        An early explorer of the west, Abe Leeds, reported seeing up to 10,000 bighorn just in the Lost River Mountain Range of Idaho.
        As domestic sheep, traveling from Oregon to Butte, Montana in the late 1800s,were grazed through the area, the Bighorns there died off from disease contracted from these domestic sheep.
        Ramshorn Canyon, east of Darlington, Idaho, was so named for the piles of bighorn skulls that were found there after they died from disease.

        • John Work, of the Hudson Bay Company, reported that so many Bison had grazed near Darlington, Idaho in the early 1820s that his trapping brigade’s horses were starving to death as they traveled up the Big Lost River Valley. The valley was full of bison and the mountains abounded with bighorns.

          In the late 1800s, domestic sheep herds followed the old indian trails up Fish Creek from the Carey area, down Leadbelt Creek and Antelope Creek to the main Lost River and then up Pass Creek and down Wet Creek to the Little Lost River. They spread disease far and wide. The Big Lost River Valley Bighorns ceased to exist. The Bighorns were all gone by the early 1900s.
          When I was a teenager living in the Lost River Valley in the 1950s, I found several Bighorn skulls during my explorations of the valley, but never saw any bighorns.
          I saw my first bighorn rams in 1955 while ice fishing on Jimmy Smith Lake, on the East Fork of the Salmon River.

          In 1968 I helped establish range transects, to evaluate grazing by bighorns, on the ridges overlooking Jimmy Smith Lake while employed by the IDF&G. I found a nice bighorn skull, with the horn sheaths still on it, on the ridge northwest of the lake.

          In the summer 1970, I was hired by the IDF&G to evaluate all of the mountain ranges in central Idaho east of the Salmon River for the posible re-establishment of bighorn populations. I found ten possible sites and bighorn sheep were eventually released in the Mahagany creeek area in the Pupper Pahsimeroi drainage later that summer.
          Other transplants followed: east of Darlington; Badger Creek in the Lemhi Range and anothe other near the mouth of Birch Creek.
          There were many sites I saw that had historical populations of bighorns, but I had to reject them due to the proximity of domestic sheep.

          Each of the transplants suffered due to eventual contact with domestic sheep and only a few Bighorn sheep survive there today.

        • avatar Nancie Mccormish says:

          Larry, I worked on the Big Butte in the 1970s for a spell, was all over that butte and saw no signs of Bighorns. Just some old fences, an occasional watering hole and a mountain lion den. It was winter so no livestock were around.

  2. avatar Scott Slocum says:

    What a refreshing way to look at things! That would be a very different world, wouldn’t it; with equal consideration for wildlife?

    • avatar Ralph Maughan says:

      Livestock in general have long been the source of human disease, and to some degree, vice versa.

      Despite this I see few efforts, and what exist are decreasing, of keeping livestock concentrations away from people (except in urban zones, of course) or people bulding next to livestock.

      Hope to hear I am wrong about this.

  3. avatar CodyCoyote says:

    Let’s just repeal ” Fence Out ” laws in those states that still have them , and be done with it…

    In other words, mandate in no uncertain terms that livestock owners are responsible for their property, the domestic critters. I find it ridiculous that on the one hand livestock is considered a valuable tangible asset and private property, yet get exempted ftom actions and infringements that would result in fines or even jail time if committed by a human.

    It is said only in half jest that Sheep and Cows have more rights than People in my Wyoming…

    • avatar Nancy says:

      BIG +1

    • avatar Nancie Mccormish says:

      CC, Wyoming is a “fence out” state but last Thanksgiving hundreds of wild horses were removed from the Checkerboard to appease the Rock Springs Grazing Assn., which filed suit to remove them from their legally designated public lands since there are no fences separating the public from private lands.

      So much for a private landowner being required to “fence out” anything in southern Wyoming! No point in rescinding a law that isn’t being upheld.

    • avatar alf says:

      I’m in complete, 100% agreement, but we all know doggone good and well that it isn’t going to happen. Not for a long time anyhow. Not until the demographics of the mountain and intermountain states changes, and we get some public office holders that admit that this is the 21st century, not the 19th.

      BTW, just last summer, some of one of my “neighbors'” hired men were driving cattle down the road in front of my place from his private ground to his public lands allotment. (“Public” meaning belonging to you and me) Several of the vermin broke and came in through my front gate and tromped all over the place, including the lawn. His hirelings drove most of them out (tromping all over the place on horseback), but left several in. I eventually, on foot, got them out, after about an hour, but in leaving, several tore up my tight, well maintained 4-strand barbed wire property line fence.

      And all this was perfectly legal, on the part of the ” poor, hard working, salt of the earth” rancher.

  4. avatar Mark L says:

    Yes, I’m with rork, that was an entertaining timeline Larry gave.

  5. avatar Montana Boy says:

    So Rita
    First all why is there so little being mentioned about hunting in the early years? Mostly because of Ken
    The article talks of hobby farmers being the biggest problem. People who buy a small tract of land out of town. The same people who come up when we talk of wildfires, loss of habitat, grizzlies and chickens and on and on. What have we gained on these conversations? Nothing
    So can we educate some of these people? Yes but there’s always one hard head. Can we regulate them you can try but where to draw the line, where to start and where to end.
    It’s a lovely dream, but why should I rain on the parade, because Rita ask.

    • avatar Montana Boy says:

      Let me add. I’ve spent some time hunting with Tom Carlson when I was younger, if Tom never found the solution then good luck to those who try.

  6. avatar Yvette says:

    Now that the source of the pneumonia has been identified as mycoplasma, I wonder if a vaccine can be developed for the domestic animal? If the sheep and goats can be vaccinated to not carry the mycoplasma that may help the bighorn populations rebound.

    In the meantime, it sounds like CodyCoyote has the best immediate solution.

    • avatar Logan says:

      If I am not mistaken Washington State University was doing some research into the vaccines you referenced.

  7. avatar Logan says:

    I certainly hope we can do something about the sheep grazing in the west. Reports that I have read indicate that Bighorn sheep numbers were as numerous as other ungulates. Especially in the area I currently reside reports and journals of early trappers indicate that Bighorn sheep were even more numerous than deer. Unfortunately there is no way that we can every reestablish the bighorns until we limit the use of the range by domestic sheep.

    I don’t think that public grazing should be done away with for all cattle and sheep but there is a lot that could be done to improve the situation for wildlife. The sheep in my area especially do enormous damage to the range that is occupied by deer, elk and historically bighorn sheep.

    I did recently read an interested study dealing with the decline in mule deer numbers that stated that winter range could be improved by cattle grazing since such activity could fill the role once occupied by buffalo. The study however was self admitted as inconclusive.

  8. Ken thanks for bringing this up. The plight of bighorn sheep in Idaho, Montana and elsewhere is a very important issue. Thanks as well to Laura Lundquist for writing the comprehensive bighorn sheep article in the Bozeman Chronicle.

    At this point I think we have plenty to gain by focusing on public lands. The Gravelly-Snowcrest and Centennial mountain ranges, which includes the Upper Ruby watershed is another vast area of remote and prime bighorn sheep habitat in southwest Montana and northeast Idaho. This area is almost entirely public land – Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, Targhee NF, Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, BLM and three adjacent Wildlife Management Areas in Montana(Blacktail, Robb-Ledford and Wall Creek WMAs).

    However, there are no longer any bighorns in this extensive habitat. Unfortunately, the Forest Service office in Dillon Montana continues to authorize a couple of domestic sheep trailing and use permits in the Gravelly Mountains, centered on Bighorn Mountain. The Agricultural Research Service in Dubois Idaho does the same in the Centennial Mountain Range. This area offers an excellent area for bighorn reintroduction, but the domestic sheep use on our public lands prevents any meaningful discussions from proceeding.

    While Ken makes some excellent points about the absurdity of private livestock owner “rights”, we still struggle to get this right on public lands.

    • avatar alf says:

      I worked on the Beaverhead for 10 years (1977-87). I don’t remember how many allotments there are, or were, in the Upper Ruby, Gravellies and Snowcrests, or how many are/were C&H or S&G. However, I do remember that Joe Helle, one of the big sheep allotment holders, was quite well connected politically; and although I understand that he’s turned the operation over to his kids, I know that they still have a lot of political muscle.

  9. avatar Logan says:

    It has always seemed to me that grazing private livestock on public land was an acceptable practice as long as the lease agreement and cost to the livestock owner compensated the public trust. The more I become aware of grazing practices and the lack of supervision of the livestock and lack of regulation of the owners the more I disapprove and feel like we are not recieving compensation for the damge being done.

    Like all other industries which are required to meet certain environmental regulations to minimize impact to natural environments I want to see more done to ensure that grazing does not have excessive impacts on wildlife.

    I find however that most Idahoans are unaware of how abundant Bighorn sheep were and could be if grazing was better regulated.

    • avatar Nancie Mccormish says:

      Logan, the grazing leases lose millions of dollars annually, they are not profitable to we, the people, at all but are a subsidy to private interests at the expense the public. Most estimates I’ve come across indicate though millions of cattle and sheep graze our public lands for next to nothing, overall they represent between 3-4% of our domestic livestock supply. In other words, we pay to put them there, we pay in ecosystem degradation, and we pay in losses to wildlife who by right belong there. Cattle and domestic sheep are invasive species by any definition.

      I’m not inherently opposed to ranching at all – I’ve said many times that if as a nation we want to subsidize the private profits of a handful of ranchers and ranch corporations, surely we can find more cost-effective ways to do so. As it stands we are stuck with an unsustainable situation which only worsens as resources become more scarce and human populations increase.

      • avatar rork says:

        ” Cattle and domestic sheep are invasive species by any definition. ”
        Not by my definition or that of the people who I join with to fight stuff that is actually invasive. They’d have to actually be invading places in the face of some resistance. Eradicating cattle would be easy if we wanted. The problem is one of human assistance – it is our fault.

  10. avatar snaildarter says:

    No grazing on public lands, No trapping predators

  11. avatar Nancie Mccormish says:

    Since 2014 is a midterm election year, we all need to prod our elected officials to take a position on legislation which would double the term of domestic grazing leases (among other things)if passed.

    Here’s one site you can easily check out the legislation pros and cons and it will find your elected officials for you should you want to write them directly.

    http://www.popvox.com

    The “Grazing Improvement Act” last year was identified as HR 657 and S 258…I’m not sure if the designations change with the new seating of Congress or not.

    Here’s the short summaries of each:

    2.) The Grazing Improvement Act
    HR 657 Reported to House amended, Part 1 (07/09/2013). 15 cosponsors as of 1-1-14.

    Grazing Improvement Act – Amends the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (the Act) to double from 10 to 20 years the period of a term for grazing permits and leases for domestic livestock grazing on public lands or lands within national forests in 16 contiguous western states. Permits the issuance of permits and leases for a period shorter than 20 years (under current law, shorter than 10 years), including where the Secretary concerned determines that the initial environmental analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) regarding a grazing allotment, permit, or lease has not been completed.

    Permits only applicants, permittees, and lessees whose interest in grazing livestock is directly affected by a final grazing decision to appeal such decision to an administrative law judge.

    Directs that grazing permits or leases issued by the Secretary of the Interior respecting lands under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior and grazing permits issued by the Secretary of Agriculture (USDA) respecting National Forest System lands that expire, are transferred, or are waived after this Act’s enactment be renewed or reissued, as appropriate, under the Act, the Granger-Thye Act, the Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act, or the California Desert Protection Act of 1994.

    Excludes the renewal, reissuance, or transfer of a grazing permit or lease by the Secretary concerned from the NEPA requirement to prepare an environmental analysis if: (1) such decision continues to renew, reissue, or transfer current grazing management of the allotment; (2) monitoring indicates that such management meets objectives contained in the land use and resource management plan of the allotment; or (3) the decision is consistent with the policy of the Department of the Interior or USDA regarding extraordinary circumstances.

    Gives the Secretary concerned the sole discretion to determine the priority and timing for completing each required environmental analysis regarding any grazing allotment, permit, or lease based on the environmental significance of such authorization and available funding.
    Makes NEPA inapplicable to domestic livestock crossing and trailing authorizations, transfers of grazing preference, and range improvements.

    S 258 Introduced in Senate (02/07/2013). 8 cosponsors as of 1-1-14. 15 co sponsors as of 1-1-14.

    Grazing Improvement Act – Amends the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (the Act) to double from 10 to 20 years the period of a term for grazing permits and leases for domestic livestock grazing on public lands or lands within national forests in 16 contiguous western states. Permits the issuance of permits and leases for a period shorter than 20 years (under current law, shorter than 10 years), including where the Secretary concerned determines that the initial environmental analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) regarding a grazing allotment, permit, or lease has not been completed.

    Directs that grazing permits or leases issued by the Secretary of the Interior or the Secretary of Agriculture (USDA) that expire, are transferred, or are waived after this Act’s enactment be renewed or reissued, as appropriate, under the Act, the Granger-Thye Act, the Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act, or the California Desert Protection Act of 1994.

    Excludes the renewal, reissuance, or transfer of a grazing permit or lease by the Secretary concerned from the NEPA requirement to prepare an environmental analysis if: (1) such decision continues to renew, reissue, or transfer current grazing management of the allotment; (2) monitoring indicates that such management meets objectives contained in the land use and resource management plan of the allotment; or (3) the decision is consistent with the policy of the Department of the Interior or USDA regarding extraordinary circumstances.

    Makes NEPA inapplicable to domestic livestock crossing and trailing authorizations and transfers of grazing preference.

    SOURCES:
    http://www.popvox.com/bills/us/113/s258

    http://beta.congress.gov/bill/113th-congress/senate-bill/258

  12. avatar Gary H says:

    This country was founded on private property rights so I would never advocate for the restriction of sheep or goats on private property. One way to help restore bighorn sheep is to educate and work for cooperation with small farmers and ranchers. Some of them will not cooperate for a variety of reasons, however, it is worth the effort to try to get as many on board as possible.

    Even though these small hobby ranchers are not officially members of associations such as the Montana Wool Growers, I would attempt to have them work together. Sometimes associations are able to financially assist (ie. offset the costs of double fencing) the small hobby ranchers.

    When grizzly bears are attracted to human communities for food, the Montana Fish and Wildlife educates the residents on how to properly store food and 90% of the time the bears are not killed. Education, cooperation and enforcement are the keys to almost all wildlife issues.

    It would also help if the federal government agency that conducts “sheep research” west of Yellowstone NP would change their grazing practices so bighorn sheep could return without the threat of disease. The federal government should be a leader in the restoration of native species.

    • avatar Ken Cole says:

      Private property rights only go so far. For example, in Boise we can’t have livestock and we can only have 5 chickens with no roosters. I think there is a perfectly good argument for restrictions on domestic sheep in places where there are bighorn sheep. Areas like Gardiner, MT near Yellowstone National Park are a perfect example, especially when you have a landowner who is unwilling to compromise. There are few other options other than zoning in cases like that.

    • avatar alf says:

      “One way to help…is to educate and work for cooperation with small farmers and ranchers. Some of them will not cooperate for a variety of reasons,…”

      Yeah, like the guy who just recently moved into Island Park, Idaho (from CA, I think, but that’s not relevant), and brought a couple dozen chickens with him. He was apparently warned that they’d be bear magnets, but he chose to ignore the warning. Perhaps he’s a private property rights fanatic, who deliberately wanted to push it as far as he could. At any rate, sure enough, a grizzly raided his chicken coop, and the SOB shot the bear.

      Hardly a fair exchange : An endangered grizzly, in return for a few lousy chickens, which Tyson and Colonel Cluck go through by the millions every year.

      Then there’s the guy at Gardner, MT (Gardner, of all places — right outside the north entrance to Yellowstone !), who insisted on keeping a flock of domestic muttons, and then squalled like a mashed cat when they suffered some predation. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that probably the one place in YNP that you’d be most likely to see bighorns is on the road between Gardner and Mammoth Hot Springs just inside the park.

  13. avatar Gary H. says:

    I understand why there are certain zoning laws in the US, but I think the first priority in restoring bighorn sheep, is to begin the removal of domestic livestock on federal lands. If there are grazing permits issued by the BLM and FS that are adjacent to bighorn sheep habitat, these permits should not be re-issued when they expire.

    In a perfect world, humans would respect native plant and wildlife species, but I would recommend the implementation of new zoning laws as a last resort. I’m not aware of the situation as I only know what I read from the newspaper article so please excuse my lack of knowledge.

    I would think that some of the small sheep and goat owners live there because they do not want the government to intrude on their rights. With new laws comes enforcement and I question if there are adequate resources to enforce additional laws. Cooperation will take time, but cooperation with 50% of the small ranchers would be more effective than trying to enforce new laws.

  14. avatar birdpond says:

    TWEETSTORM FOR WOLVES -during OBAMA STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS Jan 28 at 9 PM : https://twitter.com/whitehouse

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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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