“We’re basically playing chicken with the feds. It’s basically more like extortion, . . .”
Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne)-

This session of the Wyoming legislature has been one to nurse grudges when it comes to livestock and efforts to curb its harmful side effects.

The legislature passed a bill to criminalize the gathering of data on private land that is default open to the public. The legislature also criminalized crossing private land to gather data solely on public land. The reason is that the conservation group, Western Watersheds Project might have crossed private land to take water quality samples in streams on public lands that were suspected to be degraded by improper livestock management. The streams did in fact violate Wyoming water quality limits. The bill, however, says that any such implicating data gathered be thrown out.

Now it is close to passing legislation that would terminate a bighorn sheep herd about 60 miles SSE  of Jackson if the Forest Service reduces domestic sheep grazing on the Bridger-Teton National Forest, or if a court orders the Forest Service to reduce grazing. The “Darby” bighorn herd in the Wyoming Range of mountains would be ordered removed by Wyoming Game and Fish — moved, killed, or whatever. Game and Fish would get $37,500 to do this.

The federal government manages the land where the bighorn live, and it determines domestic sheep locations and grazing levels. The state legally owns and manages the wildlife under the direction of Wyoming Game and Fish.

The regional forester (Region 4), Nora Rasure in Ogden, Utah, told Wyoming Governor Matt Mead that the Service had no interest in protecting the Darby herd from the diseases spread by domestic sheep. This was because it was a “non-emphasis” herd according to the plans of the Bridger-Teton National Forest. It is the only herd, however, in the long and tall Wyoming Range.

This action comes at a time when bighorn sheep in Wyoming are almost 20% below target.

In response to Rasure’s message to the legislature and governor, Travis Bruner, e.d., at Western Watersheds Project said today, “”The Forest Service and Nora Rasure refuse to lift a finger to protect wild bighorn sheep from deadly disease. This submission to the wishes if a handful of sheep ranchers calls into question whether the agency is competent enough to uphold any of its duties to protect habitat for wildlife.” “The state’s plan to relocate native bighorn sheep that have lived in the wild for thousands of years just to please a few sheep ranchers is simply beyond absurd.”

The details of this controversy were just explored at WyoFile, Wyoming’s most significant source of investigative and interpretative journalism. The article is by Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

Bighorn sheep in Wyoming have suffered a number of significant die-offs due to pneumonia thought likely to have come from contact or nearness to domestic sheep.

About The Author

Ralph Maughan

Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan's Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of "Hiking Idaho." He also wrote "Beyond the Tetons" and "Backpacking Wyoming's Teton and Washakie Wilderness." He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

37 Responses to Wyoming Legislature would terminate bighorn sheep herd in reprisal for Forest Service protection

  1. Professor Sweat says:

    WWP must have really struck a chord a fear with the water quality data. It’s really unbelievable how far the WY legislature will go to give the livestock industry the ole’ nosedive.

    Why so much controversy over protecting a herd of 60 bighorn sheep on a piece of public property roughly the seize of Connecticut? There has to be enough space for the sheep ranchers to give the bighorns some concession of space or buffer from their herds. How is it professional or acceptable by any civil servant or governing body to threaten a public resource out of spite?

  2. All conservation organizations should get together and work to rid our public lands of domestic sheep. Wolves, coyotes, cougars,bears and Bighorns are all targeted by the wool industry.
    We subsidize them with cheap grazing, predator control,wool and lamb meat subsidies and they repay us by hiring Peruvian herders and shooting bighorn sheep??? Welfare cheapskates.

  3. Ed Loosli says:

    Ralph Maughan:
    You write, “The state legally owns and manages the wildlife under the direction of Wyoming Game and Fish. Specifically, what federal law says that the State of Wyoming “owns” the wildlife in Wyoming??

    I believe it is custom and tradition that in general, state’s manage wildlife within their states, however, I am not aware of a federal law that says wildlife is “owned” by states, nor do I know of a federal law that prohibits the federal government from “managing” wildlife on federal public lands. Please enlighten me with the facts of federal law as you know them.

    • Ralph Maughan says:

      Ed Loosli,

      No federal law gives wildlife ownership to the states.

      As you say, it is tradition, state laws, and court decisions that give the states ownership of wildlife.

      • Ed Loosli says:

        Ralph Maughan:
        In using the words: “it is tradition, state laws, and court decisions that give the states ownership of wildlife” aren’t you giving the states more power than they actually have?
        For Example, if the Feds truly wanted to prevent the State of Wyoming (or any other state) from killing bighorn sheep on Federal land, couldn’t the Feds prevent the killing?

        • Ralph Maughan says:

          Ed Loosli,

          I have read, but not analyzed the view that the federal government could constitutionally federalize all wildlife without violating the U.S. Constitution. It would take passage of new laws, of course. That this could happen is politically remote.

          • Louise Kane says:

            I think, as you know, that federal laws would better protect wildlife and that a shift should happen soon to assert ecosystem wide biodiversity goals instead of the hillbilly, kill em all, except ungulate rule of law that many states employ now as “management”.

            • Ralph Maughan says:

              Louise Kane,

              I agree.

              State primacy puts the power in the hands of local and state level elites. This is rarely said in public debate, but I think it is the entire point of what they call “states rights.”

              States rights is not about some abstract notion of a balanced constitution. It is about who rules and what kind of policy is made.

              The debate over civil rights in the 1960s (and still today) was framed by racist Southerners as a debate over state’s rights. They couldn’t say this nationally — “our regional and state wide system is great because it keeps those Black people in their place.”

              State primacy on wildlife has the same effect and is designed to keep management in hands of local interests that usually don’t place much more than crude instrumental value to wildlife.

              If these people gained firm control over the federal government and enlightened views emerged in the states, there would be no debate about state’s rights. It would be about federal uniformity and the need to keep “undesirable” species (perhaps ‘terrorist’ animals) and methods from getting a foothold in the good old USA.

              • Maska says:

                Well said, Ralph. We see this playing out on many issues, including social issues like reproductive rights, gender issues, and many others.

          • Ed Loosli says:

            Ralph Maughan:
            You write: “It would take passage of new laws, of course.”
            Specifically, what federal laws would have to be repealed so a new ones could be put in it’s place for the federal government to assert primacy over the management of wildlife on our federal public lands?

            • Elk375 says:


              If the federal government was to take control of wildlife on federal lands, landowners would demand ownership of wildlife on their land. The system might not be perfect but if the boat is rocked it may ultimately sink. There is nothing more than large landowners wanting to own the wildlife on their property, setting hunting seasons and population objectives.

              The present congress would not and could not pass any bill giving the feds control of state’s historical management of local wildlife. Wildlife is generally manage well by states, trapping and predator hunting may displease some people but the big game populations are at good numbers. States have been professionally managing wildlife since the early 1900’s and have over 100 years of research and information.

              • Nancy says:

                “There is nothing more than large landowners wanting to own the wildlife on their property, setting hunting seasons and population objectives”

                Ah Elk, hello? I believe this is already taking place. At least two big ranches in my valley, have sold out to a local outfitter (they use to be block management) This outfitter has exclusive rights to bring clients in to hunt elk, elk who have little choice but to migrate out of the area, thru these properties.

                • rork says:

                  Nancy, large landowners leasing hunting rights is common in MI. It’s usually to groups of individuals who think of themselves as hunt clubs, but sometimes to folks I think of as outfitters (more true of elk for example). Commonly it is a way for farmers to make money – it’s worth more to lease it than hunt it yourself. How they negotiate the management objectives is something I’d like to hear more about, but the regulations and seasons are the same as for any other place. Before farmers could make serious money off deer, they were treated more as vermin. On large holdings owned by hunt clubs, or just by families (like my up-north hunting spot), there’s also plans about population objectives for deer – it’s not-so-different than leasing. Lately, rather than limiting our deer kill, we try to insure sufficient doe kill (and still our cedar get annihilated – it’s good yarding habitat).

                • Carl says:

                  Nancy this happens all over the country. The hunters still have to follow state laws because the animals are considered the property of the state they are in. If they were the property of the land owner they could be killed at any time of year without any restrictions on methods or numbers taken.

              • Ed-L@sbcglobal.net says:

                I am talking about the Feds, if they wanted to, could without any law changes prevent the State of Wyoming from killing bighorn sheep on FEDERAL PUBLIC LANDS. The operative term here is, if the Feds want to take action, as in my opinion the Feds are much too timid in protecting OUR wildlife (not the State’s wildlife) on OUR public lands. The current treatment of bison in Yellowstone and their teaming with the State of Montana to see that bison are slaughtered is a good example of the Feds timidity.

                • Elk375 says:


                  If the fed’s tried to take control of wildlife on federal lands all states with federal lands would immediately introduce legislation that would effectively remove any federal control.

                  When bison leave Yellowstone not every bison goes to forest service lands.

                • Jay says:

                  Elk, states could introduce all the meaningless legislation they wanted, but as we all learned back in high school civics, federal law supersedes state law.

              • Yvette says:

                I know you disagree on this but it is time for the U.S. to explore the development of a new wildlife management paradigm. Given the changes that are far too often degradation of habitat it will be inevitable at some point, maybe even in our lifetime.

                Under our current paradigm we manage mostly with the goal of conservation that benefits ungulate and big game hunters, rather than conservation for all wildlife native to a specific region. Of course, I’ve left out an equally important segment and that is anglers.

                Rather than 100% federal management we probably need to shift to a federal/state/inter-state/tribal co-management system based on ecosystems. This could be at the Level II or Level III ecosystem scale. I think it has the potential to work better for the wildlife. Are we managing for wildlife or for humans? We should be managing for both, but in the most balanced system we can work. Nature does not follow manmade political boundaries. We have to ask who we are managing for; oil and gas companies? elk hunters? coyote killers? agriculture? nature photographers?

                • Yvette says:

                  Meant to state, ‘rather than shift to a 100% federal management system’…..

  4. Glenn Hockett says:

    In Montana, bighorn sheep populations are typically small, isolated, getting older and generally not doing very well. Montana State University Researcher Dr. Bob Garrott has recently noted that 70% of bighorn sheep herds in Montana number below 100 animals. That isn’t circling the drain, that is down the drain.

    IMO, what bighorn sheep need are larger landscapes where small populations can expand and meet other small populations of bighorns. We need to be thinking about thousands, not hundreds of bighorn sheep.

    Given the science, evidence, current status of bighorns and current State policies (bighorns cannot use the same areas domestic sheep use due to concerns over disease transmission) I conclude there is no reason to support domestic sheep use of public land bighorn sheep habitat anywhere. The old ARS Sheep Station, which uses land in both Idaho and Montana is a case in point. This old government subsidy to the public land sheep industry needs to go away.

    The use of our public lands by domestic sheep is highly subsidized in many other ways as well; Wildlife Services killing native carnivores and the cheap federal grazing fee, which is currently $1.69/AUM compared to $25-30/AUM on adjacent private lands.

    • Jay says:

      Try a buck thirty-five…which is the lowest it can go.

      • Nancy says:

        And doesn’t that differ from cow/calf Jay? I believe that $ covers something 4-5 head of sheep for that buck thirty-five.

        • Jay says:

          Yeah, I don’t recall the animal equivalents off the top of my head, but there’s definitely a lot more sheep per AUM than the standard cow/calf pair.

        • Nancy- I think that $1.35 covers 4-5 adult sheep plus their lambs. If each ewe has two lambs these guys get to graze at least a dozen sheep for $1.35/month. Sheep growers breed their ewes to give birth in January and February so that these so called lambs are nearly adult size when they hit the public lands in June and July.

  5. Kathleen says:

    I was shocked to see that the grazing fee had gone up to $1.69 per AUM for 2015!

    Here’s expense vs. income for 2014:

    In Fiscal Year 2014, the BLM spent $79.2 million on its rangeland management program and approximately $10 million on its Range Improvement Program, for a grand total of $89.2 million. Of that figure, the agency spent $32.8 million on grazing permit administration. The other $56.4 million covered such activities as weed management, rangeland monitoring (not related to grazing administration), planning, water development, vegetation restoration, and habitat improvement. In 2014, the BLM collected $12,117,000 in grazing fees (see section on grazing fee below). The receipts from these annual fees, in accordance with legislative requirements, are shared with state and local governments.


    (yes…5 sheep/goats for one month = one AUM)

    • Jay says:

      Well I stand corrected–I hadn’t looked at 2015, just knew it was the minimum in 2014.

      Inflation like that, that thirty-four cents is going to put them out of business!

  6. Does anyone know what the subsidy per pound for wool and lamb that the woolgrowers get from the government? I can’t seem to find that price on the internet.

  7. Robbin Johnston says:

    Based on what I have read the American people in 2014 spend 89 million for the management of a domestic grazing program on BLM lands. In return the public received 12 million from fees generated. The public has the right to demand fair market value so that the cost of management is covered by the fees charged to pay for such activities. The disparity between the cost of management versus the return speaks to the very issue of what is wrong with the minimal fees charged to grazers on BLM lands. Where does it say that the American public should pay for what is clearly a private business undertaking designed to make money. There is no free lunch. Congress or the courts need to get involved. Keep our representatives in the west out of public land management since they clearly do not understand that those who pay are the ones who get to play not the other way around.


March 2015


‎"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