Bighorn battle could doom sheep ranchers

Idaho Sheep Ranchers are Struggling Against Reality.

The law and science are not on their side so they are pressuring the State to come up with a solution to protect them.

Bighorn Sheep in the East Fork Salmon River Canyon. Photo © Ken Cole
Bighorn Sheep in the East Fork Salmon River Canyon. Photo © Ken Cole

On Thursday February 26th the second meeting of what is being called the “Bighorn Sheep/Domestic Sheep Advisory Group” was held in Boise. At this meeting there was no discussion of bighorn sheep (BHS) and domestic sheep (DS) issues just introductions and discussions about process and ground rules.

These issues were described as “non-negotiables”

*Group is advisory, no regulatory or legal authority.
*Idaho wants bighorn sheep and domestic sheep.
*Group is collaborative. Will develop collaborative recommendations & Products.

It appears that science and reality are against the goal of maintaining viable bighorn sheep populations as well as viable domestic sheep operations.

Domestic sheep and goats carry diseases which have little effect on their own health but can kill bighorn sheep and there is a consensus among biologists that this is true although a particular pathogen has not been identified in every case. It could be a single pathogen, multiple pathogens, or a suite of pathogens that kill BHS but it has been documented on many occasions that contact with DS results in the death of BHS by pneumonia. In some cases the disease kills animals in all age classes.

Presently the science that is being used by the US Forest Service and the BLM indicates that there should be a 9 mile separation between known bighorn sheep range and domestic sheep to limit the possibility of direct contact between the two. The US Forest Service has said that it takes less than one instance of direct contact between BHS and DS to threaten the viability of BHS and, by law, the USFS must manage for the viability of BHS. The Payette Forest has presented a plan to close domestic sheep allotments to reduce the possibility of contact between the two to less than once a year which is regarded as a minimum protection. Risk Analysis of Disease Transmission between Domestic Sheep and Bighorn Sheep on the Payette National Forest (PDF 187 KB)

There have been numerous instances documented where DS have strayed from their herds and long after they were supposed to be removed from the allotments were found wandering in Hell’s Canyon. I remember seeing a domestic sheep when I was a little boy deep inside the Frank Church Wilderness near Chamberlain Basin, it was straddled over a log and my dad freed it. I’ve even been told stories of hunting domestic sheep after a herder abandoned the herd weeks or months before.

People have worked long and hard to re-establish bighorn sheep to Hell’s Canyon but the herds there continue to show signs of disease exposure from domestic sheep and there is very little recruitment to the population that once numbered near 10,000.

In the Frank Church Wilderness and the Salmon River Canyon, where bighorn sheep are native and there have not been any reintroductions, the disease problem has had effects on populations far away from domestic sheep operations because of the long distances bighorn rams travel at times and because ewes from different populations sometimes share the same birthing grounds. In essence a curious bighorn could come into contact with a domestic sheep near Riggins then travel 60 miles to another heard and transmit disease to other bighorns deep in the wilderness.

The Lewiston Morning Tribune did an article about this last week but it was only available to subscribers. Now the Salt Lake Tribune has reprinted it.
Bighorn battle could doom sheep ranchers
Salt Lake Tribune

The sheep ranchers claim that they have an agreement which allows them to continue grazing in Hells Canyon but the agreement is not valid.

Brian Ertz writes this:

Read the agreement if you like:
1997 Hells Canyon Agreement

1. The Payette National Forest, the Forest that is taking action to preserve bighorn now, never signed any “agreement”, it was the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest that signed the letter.
2. The letter suggests no such Forest obligation as is purported in the analysis provided by the article. The letter claims the 3 state departments are under such obligation with regard to management of bighorn.
3. Even if the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest was the Payette, a Forest has no authority to sign any such letter ‘accepting the risk’ in the first place. The 1982 Forest regulations maintain that Forests must provide for “species viability” – and the National Forest Management Act provides the statutory obligation that those regulations be followed. A Forest supervisor has no legal authority to trump those regulations and the will of Congress – that’s the point – even if the agreement were between the parties involved (which it’s not signed by the Payette – that party not allowing domestic sheep to graze in order to preserve bighorn), it’s not worth the paper its printed on.
4. The wild sheep being protected are native – they weren’t transplanted, Winmill made it very clear that this fact makes them uniquely valuable and subject to protection. And if you think about it, the agreement ought not to apply to those existing sheep – even if it were a legit agreement in the first place.



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  1. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    If you spend a little time on almost any public grazing allotment that has more than a token number of sheep or cattle after the season is over, you will find one or more live animals left behind and/or their carcasses which probably were never discovered by the herder(s) (which in the case of cattle rarely exist).

  2. Brian Ertz Avatar

    From what I understand, The ‘9-mile buffer’ is already a compromise, that standard was adopted as the 40+ miles that young rams are known to venture would be even more prohibitive. But as with many things involved with public lands ranching, the wildlife gets the inch while the welfare rancher takes the mile

  3. kt Avatar

    Brian – Yes that is what I understand, too. Especially with any enticing rock outcroppings present that tantalize/facilitate bighorn movement.

    Ken – What in the world is that garish big blue ear tag? Looks like IDFG has had its heavy hands on that poor critter. I am still cringing from looking at Arizona Fish and Game/Wildlife’s – whatever they are called – handiwork with the great jaguar Macho B. Especially after reading the wonderful and sad eulogy that Demarcated Landscapes posted.

    Look at that paw – and look at the spots on the fur. Wow!

    So here is a question: Did Macho B ever dine on desert bighorn? Or sustain himself on javelinas? Where are there now bighorns in his former homeland/range? Was he a Chihuahuan desert roamer – interfacing with Sonoran?

    What are the details of pre-settlement AZ bighorns and jaguars? And jaguars and wolves? And jaguars and grizzlies? Didn’t grizzlies extend down into the lower Colorado River and its cottonwood gallery forests country – like near Yuma – once upon a time — 150 years ago?

  4. Ken Cole Avatar

    I didn’t notice the ear tag when I took the photo years ago but when I cropped it down I noticed it.

    I ran into a guy that year who was studying the bighorns there and he said that these animals were suffering from respiratory problems. He was taking samples of fresh scat for testing and watching them to see if they were coughing, which they were.

  5. Ken Cole Avatar

    Also there is a small pen of little domestic goats near Lake Creek. I wonder whether bighorns have come into contact with these animals since I regularly saw bighorn sheep nearby.

    They are on private ground but it seems to me that at minimum someone might want to ask that another taller fence be built a few feet outside of the lower fence to maintain separation.

  6. Save bears Avatar
    Save bears

    Want or Demand Ken? you can’t tell them what to do on their private land….I agree 100% on all of the public land issues, but when you start talking about private land, I think we are overstepping our bounds…

  7. Ken Cole Avatar

    Did I say demand? I think I said ask.

  8. Save bears Avatar
    Save bears


    No, I said demand…

    And again, when we start talking about private lands, I will take issue…

  9. Save bears Avatar
    Save bears

    We have enough problems working on the issues that cover public lands, I just think if we start making mention of the private lands that wildlife live, we are in for a real fight, we need to solve one problem at a time, and as a private land owner in three different states, I would take strong exception to anyone…”asking” especially in the manner that I know that many that contribute on this blog “ask”

  10. Ken Cole Avatar

    I understand, but there is another issue here too.

    How should livestock on private land that is likely to transmit a deadly disease to wildlife be dealt with? This wildlife is held in the public trust and it is negligent to put them at risk in this way but since there is no moral hazard to the land and livestock owner what is there to do?

    I think it is a legitimate question.

  11. Ken Cole Avatar

    Also, I think you read too much into my comment. However there is precedent. Elk farming was made illegal in Montana for exactly the same reasons.

  12. Save bears Avatar
    Save bears

    I think that it is a legitimate question, how do we handle private livestock on private lands that may transmit to wildlife, first I think we need to isolate what is causing the problem, which we have not yet and find a way to solve that problem.

    But currently we have far more problems on public land than we can solve and when we start talking private land, then we do nothing more than drive that wedge deeper..which is the big problem we see with Bison right now, an illness caused by domestic animals is causing mass destruction in a wild animal….

    I hope a solution to the respiratory situation in Big Horns is found and found quick…but I believe it is a very delicate situation that needs to be handled correctly..

  13. Save bears Avatar
    Save bears

    Yes, and I voted to make elk ranching in Montana illegal, when I lived there, but there was far more behind it than just the threat of transmission….and I would vote to make big horn ranching illegal in Idaho, where I now reside..

    And I may have read more into it than you meant, but when you talk about private lands, then that is another kettle of worms that will drive the wedge deeper…

  14. Ken Cole Avatar

    What is your solution?

  15. Save bears Avatar
    Save bears

    I would ask Ken, are you a private land owner in an interface area that wildlife frequent? and I am not talking about public lands…

  16. Save bears Avatar
    Save bears

    My solution is finding vaccinations for the illnesses that domestic animals carry and can be transmitted to wildlife..wildlife has no obligation in my opinion, but making sure livestock is clean is…if ranchers had made sure their cattle were brucellosis free would have gone a long ways to solve the current situation we now have around Yellowstone..

  17. Save bears Avatar
    Save bears

    At least in theory, as I know for a fact it is a land control issue more than it is a illness issue…but it would have got rid of one more thing they could bitch about and control public wildlife..

  18. Ken Cole Avatar

    I have a place in Cascade that has bears, fox, deer, etc. but it is not a place that I think anyone would use for livestock. It is however adjacent to Bureau of Reclamation land.

    If I were a landowner of the particular place I am talking about on the EF Salmon I wouldn’t choose to graze anything there at all as it has wolves, cougars, coyotes, and in this particular case, bighorn sheep that my livestock would cause conflict with by their presence. And if I did choose to graze there I would make damned sure that nothing could get to them including the bighorn sheep. That would be the responsible thing to do. I would also have no problem if I were asked to build another perimeter fence around my livestock to avoid those kinds of conflicts. That’s just me.

    I understand that there are certain things that private property rights give a person but when my private property rights interfere with other values I think it is my responsibility to do everything in my power to at least mitigate that or minimize their impact.

  19. kt Avatar

    Ken – Well, if the hand full of inter-married public lands sheep ranchers whose domestic sheep are killing bighorns in Idaho (and Oregon) were not monopolizing everyone’s energy and costing many thousands of dollars in state personnel time, too –

    Putting up some triple wire fencing around the goat herd interface with public lands would seem to be a priority issue.

  20. Save bears Avatar
    Save bears

    Kt and Ken,

    I am not disagreeing, but I am just looking at 150 years of precedence…

    Ken, I do think that many private livestock operations are responsible and the problems we have are with the large operations that look at profit over all else, I think that most small ranchers are open and willing to look at the options that not only make their operation more viable, but also protect wildlife.unfortunately that is not where the major problem exists.. and if we require or ask those small time operations to do more, then it only stand to reason the big time operations will need to do the same, even on their private holdings…

    As I said, we need to find vaccinations and require that any that ranch in the interface make sure their animals are healthy…

  21. kt Avatar

    You’re dreaming. Their domestic sheep animals are NEVER healthy. Domestic Sheep spread every kind of germ/worm/mircobe imaginable – from Q fever to anthrax to lung worm to black leg to pasturella …

  22. Save bears Avatar
    Save bears

    Pretty much figured you would chime in and tell me I was dreaming Kt…

  23. ChrisH Avatar

    Given there is no vaccine for domestic sheep, should domestic sheep still be quarantined. If so, do you want quarantine or do you demand quarntine? If a vaccine is found, do you want herders to get vaccinations or do you demand it. This issue and most others cannot be shuffled into nice little categories like private vs. public land. These issue are much more complex and they demand all of our attention.

  24. Jay Barr Avatar
    Jay Barr

    Save bears,

    The U.S. Forest Service at least, and possibly the Bureau of Land Management, managers of the lands where our public resource, BHS, reside, have a mandate to maintain native wildlife diversity. Seems like we, U.S. citizens, have every right to demand of them that they live up to their charge. On the Payette and Nez Perce Forests we’re not talking about infringing upon any private property in asking/demanding that separation of domestic and BHS be implemented.


Ken Cole is a 5th generation Idahoan, an avid fly fisherman, wildlife enthusiast, and photographer. He is the interim Idaho Director for Western Watersheds Project.

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Ken Cole