Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Threatens Bighorn Sheep Herd with Domestic Sheep Permit on ‘Heart of the Cascades’ Land Purchase

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife recently purchased private checkerboard land intermingled with Forest Service lands in the Rock Creek watershed north of Yakima. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, The Nature Conservancy and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation combined forces and purchased 16 square miles of lands from Plum Creek Timber Company. This ‘Heart of the Cascades’ purchase was done to provide vital wildlife habitat for a whole host of species, including bighorn sheep. Habitats range from shrubsteppe to alpine meadows.

The whole purchase had earlier been threatened by moves from Governor Gregoire who threatened to change how conservation lands were chosen so that lower priority habitats could be purchased earlier in the process thus leaving those most critical purchases for later.

View Heart of the Cascades map in a larger map (light blue shows the purchased lands and the magenta shows the nearest occupied bighorn sheep habitat)

10,000 Acres Protected in the Heart of the Cascades | The Nature Conservancy.

Wildlife enthusiasts across the state and area residents cheered the purchase. But now wildlife advocates who contacted us are dismayed to learn that WDFW is on the verge of issuing a new grazing permit to a domestic sheep operator. Because of the checkerboard land ownership pattern the Forest can’t allow grazing unless the state does. This appears to be another instance where the Department ignores its mandate for wildlife and acts only to subsidize a private grazing operation – no matter how catastrophic the consequences. And potential die-off bighorn sheep herds is, by any definition, catastrophic. Under Chris Gregoire, a politicized WDFW has frequently abandoned science to cravenly cater to ranchers at the expense of wildlife and the public interest. We have written about this practice numerous times but one instance, where a judge scolded the WDFW for allowing grazing on a state wildlife management area, is particularly egregious.

As most readers know, domestic sheep carry diseases which can wipe out an entire herd of bighorn sheep. The WDFW knows this too, and they know it because they decided to kill several sick bighorn in 2010 from the same herd that they are now threatening.

If a permit to graze domestic sheep is issued – then the bighorns that have been documented in Rock Creek, are jeopardized. And this permit not only jeopardizes the Cleman Mountain Rock Creek area herd, animals from that herd are known to swim the river to the area occupied by the Tietin bighorn herd. A disease-outbreak here would impact not one – but two herds. There is documented connection between the Clemen Mountain and Tietin herds.

Furthermore, allowing sheep grazing within 9 miles of occupied bighorn sheep habitat conflicts with the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) policy which WDFW helped to develop.


  1. WM Avatar


    That would be the “Tieton” River/herd.

  2. Daniel Berg Avatar
    Daniel Berg

    I don’t know what there is to gain politically by allowing sheep on these lands. There aren’t enough sheepherders left operating on WA public lands to be much of a force.

    Gregoire is, and has been scared of taking a stand on issues like this affecting eastern Washington because of the risk of galvanizing the opposition. I think that fear is overblown.

    1. Corey Avatar

      What I am unclear of is why were the big horn herd introduced to this area when there was already a long standing permit in place for sheep grazing. There is only one sheep rancher grazing in the cascades now. Why are they being targeted. Where is the documentation on big horn contracting this disease from there domestic sheep since the big horn were planted. Why isn’t this rancher recognized for their continual compromise with being excellent stewards of the land and excellent management of their sheep. I know this rancher personally and I am greatly saddened by the battle that is ahead of them, they have survived in this business this long due to their compromising attitudes.

      1. Ken Cole Avatar

        To put is simply Corey, these lands are public lands and the wildlife is public wildlife. To think that the producer should be granted a permit, it’s not a right, to graze on public lands, thereby putting the public’s land, wildlife, and resources at risk, seems outrageous to me. These lands do not belong to him.

        Besides, these lands have been purchased using public funds for the purpose of wildlife, not private industrial use. The adjacent USFS lands must be managed in compliance with the National Forest Management Act which requires the USFS to maintain the viability of bighorn sheep and other species. It does not require them to maintain uses which conflict with those values.

        It doesn’t matter whether or not these bighorn sheep were reintroduced or not but there were historically bighorn sheep throughout the area where they exist now. The decline of bighorn sheep throughout the West has been largely attributed over hunting but also disease outbreaks caused by contact with domestic sheep. The numbers of bighorn sheep are drastically lower than they were historically.

        There is plenty of documentation of disease transmission from domestic sheep to bighorn sheep, you just need to look for articles about it on this site or go to the WAFWA website to find it. The connection is very well established.

  3. Corey Avatar

    Mr Cole you are right the land does not belong to the Rancher and as you implied these lands are public lands for multi use. Recreational to domestic livestock grazing permits. I stated, where has there been a documented case with this ranchers domestic sheep and these big horn herds? There hasn’t! Due to there efficient herders work and there relentless work to make sure such a situation does not happen. Please realize that there is no reason to become defensive and aggressive. My simple statement was that I am greatly saddened by the aggressive behavior of these groups towards this single family operation. With the aggresive attitudes that I continue to see towards this family you would think that it is personal.
    I can’t help but think they are the little guy being picked on and ran out business. They are the only operating sheep range outfit in washington state with half the numbers of sheep they had grazing 25 years ago. Which is due to grazing loss. They have adapted to regulations placed upon them and survived. It appears that their constant compromise is not good enough. These groups are wanting them completely out of the public lands. Next it will be the cattlemen then the public as a whole. Becareful of what you wish for Mr. Cole you might just get it and more!

    1. Ken Cole Avatar

      I believe that I am being neither aggressive or defensive, I am stating the facts along with my opinion.

      There has been a recent disease outbreak which was widely covered in the winter of 2009/2010. The specific source of of the disease has not been determined but the epidemiological studies show that diseases commonly carried by domestic sheep are responsible for the die-off. Based on the proximity of the domestic sheep grazing to the herd that suffered the die-off it is very possible that sheep from the adjacent allotment or on private lands nearby were the cause.

      These diseases don’t appear out of nowhere and routinely there have been studies which implicate domestic sheep as the cause.


      The public paid to reintroduce bighorn sheep to this area and it is publicly owned land. Domestic sheep threaten the investments that the public has made.

      I will state, unequivocally, that I do not support livestock grazing on public lands anywhere. In this instance, I strongly oppose domestic sheep grazing because the risks to wildlife are so clear.

  4. Corey Avatar

    Yes, the public paid to have these big horn planted. That brings us to another subject. The WAFWA being irresponsible with the publics money in deciding where to plant this herd. WAFWA new full well that there was a sheep grazing allotment active along with private lands in close proximities. As you stated domestic sheep on private lands along with the sheep on allotments could possibly be responsible, but not proven they were. If Western Watershed Project is successful in what they plan to do, What will they do with private lands that have domestic sheep? The problem is not the grazing allotment or the private lands with domestic sheep. The problem is where the bighorn herd was planted. Also,now that there is a grey wolf pack established less than 100 miles from either herds in eastern washington what will happen if they the wolves begin to threaten these bighorn herds? Will WAFWA be asked to remove the wolves? This will be inevitable, as I am sure you are aware of. I have enjoyed reading your point of view. Respectfully, this conversation must come to an end. Good day Mr. Cole

  5. Joe Avatar

    First, the Rock Creek area hosts the Cleman herd not the Tieton, and that area has been grazed annually by domestic sheep since the late 1800,s. The states new land was previously Plum Creek and has for the most part been fully harvested (not really all spectacular habitat). It also sits adjacent to private lands, where small farms with sheep, goats and llamas, known to have bighorn visits, so until all sheep, goats and llamas have been purchased from these small farmers by the rich Bighorn hunters…the threat of disease transmission from domestics still exists. This for the most part is due to the fact that many areas with Washington bighorn(California) herds were poorly located on or within the urban interface, were they also get killed on highways and face habitat issues associated with sharing forage with large quantities of elk, a problem the dwindling deer population has been facing for decades. So hopefully the herds will continue to survive their shared landscape as they have since their reintroduction, if disease, highways and poor habitat cant kill them, maybe they just might survive the wolves.

    1. Ken Cole Avatar

      While the acquired lands may not be suitable bighorn habitat, there are likely dispersal events where rams seek out new habitats and may possibly travel through these areas and encounter domestic sheep. The other scenario, which I find even more likely, is the possibility that stray domestic sheep could be left behind and then move to occupied bighorn habitat where they could transmit disease. Either way, the proximity of the two violates WAFWA guidelines, which WDFW signed onto, and domestic sheep shouldn’t be permitted so nearby bighorn sheep populations.

  6. Joe Avatar

    By the way the Die-off that impacted the Yakima Canyon herd was linked to a small private farm near the canyon, the Canyon herd is no where near any FS grazing allotment, which was in the news multiple times after the bighorns were reported sick.

  7. Joe Avatar

    Here are 2 of the many WAFWA recommendations the state ignored.
    *Do not translocate wild sheep where there is no reasonable likelihood of achieving effective separation between wild sheep and domestic sheep or goats.
    *As potential agricultural conflicts, landscape conditions and habitat suitability change, stocking wild sheep onto historic range, particularly on public lands, should be re-evaluated.

    There are many WAFWA recomendations but none that I could see that are written in a way that “the proximity of the two violates WAFWA guidelines”,unless you have just suggested the locations of these bighorn herds violates the above referenced recommendations?

    From what I understand the sheep producer has been using the WAFWA “Suggested Management Practices for Domestic Sheep Permittees” and FS has used the Agency Recommnedations…

    1. Ken Cole Avatar

      Are you speaking for the USFS or as a permittee?

  8. Joe Avatar

    Neither, I am a retired carpenter that hunts and recreates on forest and state lands. I have met this and other livestock owners in the mountains and we have talked about the issues that threaten access to public lands. I know that these are all hard working folks trying to provide for their families by providing the nation a source of meat produced in the US. I know that state and federal policy makes for difficult and time consuming management of their herds. Your link to the WAFWA document just gave me additional material to read, so I called one of the permittees I had met and asked him about the recommendations. Maybe you should have called the permittee or the FS get all of the info.

    1. Brian Ertz Avatar

      Joe – this is a new permit on state lands. Your WAFWA argument about the other guidelines is irrelevant.

  9. Joe Avatar

    It may be a new permit because of the new landowner, but the grazing is not. It would appear that the state is doing something completely new and that is not the case. The state got the land knowing it had been grazed for decades, this will only be the first of many uses they will eliminate, lets see what happens to jeep trails and other recreation that happens on this checkerboard landscape. Even if the lease isnt given, those bighorns will still be found in private pastures and corrals with the sheep, goats and llamas as they have been in the past, just ask the locals, so yes I belive my WAFWA argument is relavent.

    1. Brian Ertz Avatar

      no – there are fiduciary responsibilities, public processes, and statutory obligations that property is subject to given the acquisition by the state — the state should not be able to ‘grandfather’ those uses in absent those obligations – that’s not fair to the citizens of Washington nor to the wildlife values guiding the acquisition

      1. Daniel Berg Avatar
        Daniel Berg

        As a life-long Washington State resident, I agree.

    2. Ken Cole Avatar

      To add to what Brian said, the WDFW’s actions are subject to SEPA, the State Environmental Policy Act. All of the uses must be examined before they are approved by a state agency.


  10. Joe Avatar

    Then the public should know what they are giving up. Soon someone will be pushing for restrictions on private landowners within what 9 or 30 miles from bighorn herds that limit the type of livestock they may own? Maybe the bighorns should have been reintroduced in the high country where there would have been far fewer problems with hiways, habitat and domestic livestock, but then I guess then state could not charge 35 dollars to go watch them be fed. Where they are at now is just as bad for them (bighorn sheep) as it is for the livestock grower or small farm owner.

    1. Brian Ertz Avatar

      if state and federal agencies don’t take action to protect bighorn sheep populations now – then ESA listing is a very real threat and, yes, you may have private property implications should that happen.

      additionally – these are public lands and there is a far greater constituency of public that values bighorn sheep than domestic sheep.

      keep the domestic sheep on the private ground

    2. WM Avatar

      ++but then I guess then state could not charge 35 dollars to go watch them be fed. ++

      Alot of folks won’t understand that comment. The “Discover Pass” is now required of all who visit WA DFW lands, apparently including feeding stations for elk and sheep, as well as state parks and DNR lands. This was done to replace general fund tax dollars no longer available to operate state recreation lands. Yet another secondary impact of the Wall St. sub-prime mortgage meltdown.

  11. Joe Avatar

    Bighorn health is not only threatened by domestics, and they are for sure not only threatened by domestics on public land. Lke I said, its a bad situation for both and Im sure there is a far greater constituency of public that places no value on rural communities and their way of life, which will make restricting them simple…an unfortunate reality.


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