Bighorn sheep vs domestic sheep

Bighorn sheep, named for the large curling horns of rams, are one of the West’s most iconic animals. Once found from North Dakota to Washington and south to California to New Mexico, they were among the most plentiful of the West’s large mammals, numbering more than 2 million animals.

Today, in most western states their populations are counted in the thousands. For instance, Colorado is home to approximately 7,000 wild sheep, Wyoming has 6,450, and Montana has about 6,000 and Idaho has around 3,000. In theory, given the significant population drop across their ranges, wild bighorn should be listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Though many factors have led to this decline, including overhunting, competition for forage with domestic sheep and cattle, the most important has been the transmission of disease from domestic animals to wild animals that contributes to major herd die-offs.

The dominant threat comes from transmission of various bacteria in domestic sheep which fosters the development of pneumonia in the lungs of wild sheep.

The disease has been implicated in the decline of numerous wild herds. In 1991, there was a die-off of a third of the famous Whisky Mountain herd near Dubois, Wyoming. Another outbreak among wild bighorn sheep in the Absaroka Range west of Cody, Wyoming led to a loss of 800-1000 wild sheep. In the winter of 2009-2010, four out of nine bighorn herds in western Montana experienced pneumonia die-offs.

Sometimes state wildlife agencies kill bighorns to thwart the spread of the disease. In Montana’s Gravelly Mountains, ranchers can shoot wild bighorns if they are suspected of intermixing with their domestic sheep herds.

And sometimes agencies seek to eliminate infected herds. For example, in 2015, the Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks allowed hunters to kill half of the Tendoy Mountain herd near Lima, Montana. Their goal is to totally eradicate the current herd, after which they may try to reintroduce bighorns into the area.

Similarly, in 2016 the Nevada Dept. of Wildlife requested that Wildlife Services kill the remaining members of the Montana Mountains bighorn herd in NW Nevada to keep the disease from spreading to other wild sheep herds.

Worse for the recovery of wild sheep, many state agencies are loath to reintroduce bighorns into suitable former habitat if there are any domestic livestock grazing nearby. Thus, suitable habitat like the Centennial Mountains on the Idaho-Montana border is vacant of wild sheep, even though they once supported substantial bighorn herds.


Since most wild sheep populations are found on public lands, the management policies of federal agencies have a significant effect on the suitability and recovery of bighorn sheep. With that in mind, Western Watersheds Project, the Hells Canyon Preservation Council, and the Wilderness Society sued Idaho’s Payette National Forest to force the agency to protect bighorn habitat. In 2008, U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill ruled that ranchers were barred from grazing sheep in the Payette.

The ruling was appealed by Woolgrowers and others, but ultimately the decision was upheld and set a precedent for wild sheep management on other public lands. Since that time, other national forests and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) offices have adopted policies to limit the contact between domestic sheep and wild sheep. Sometimes this has resulted in the closure of public lands grazing allotments.


Livestock grazing on public lands is a privilege, not a right. Ranchers lease specific areas from the government for their exclusive use as pasturelands, often at below market prices, to conduct their private businesses. Often this use of public resources harms other public values like bighorn sheep herd viability. Because grazing is a privilege, federal land management agencies can legally terminate grazing privileges to protect other public resources.

Of course, it needs to be emphasized that ranchers do not own their public lands grazing allotments despite the frequent use of “grazing rights.” These are public lands and they are leased, just as a tenant might lease a house or apartment. Just because you have had lived in a rental for a long time, does not give you legal ownership or a property “right”, any more than long-term leasing of public lands grazing allotments entitles you to any compensation should the allotment be reduced or closed

However, the reality is that few managers are willing to endure the political fallout that occurs whenever they attempt to reduce or terminate a grazing allotment.

One strategy increasingly implemented to reduce the conflicts between domestic livestock and bighorns as well as other public values is to offer ranchers a buyout of their public lands grazing privileges. In exchange for cash, a rancher volunteers to forfeit his/her grazing privileges on the allotment, while the management agency such as the Forest Service or BLM agrees to permanently close the affected lands to future livestock grazing.

Not only does this eliminate some of the conflicts with bighorn sheep and many other wildlife species like wolves, grizzly bears, and coyotes, but it also offers taxpayers relief as well since most sheep ranchers regularly receive federal ag subsidies.

For instance, the major sheep producer who hold grazing allotments in Montana’s Gravelly Range where bighorns are shot near domestic herds includes the Helle/Rebish family. According to the Environmental Working Group, the Helle/Rebish family has received over $800,000 in government subsidies. Ending sheep ranching presumably will also save taxpayers money in lower subsidies.

In recent years, allotment buyout of grazing privileges funded by the Sagebrush Fund, National Wildlife Federation, Conservation Fund, Wild Sheep Foundation and other organizations, have reduced conflicts with bighorn sheep and other wildlife. Recent allotment closures that benefit bighorns include the Cape Horn allotment on the Upper Middle Fork of the Salmon River, the Howe Peak area of the Lost River Range, along with the Continental Divide near Italian Peaks in Idaho, in the Wind River Range, Gros Vente and Wyoming Range of Wyoming and elsewhere.


Increasingly, members of the public are asking why should a private business be given priority over public values like maintaining or restoring native public wildlife.  Why should sheep ranchers be permitted to jeopardize the existence of our nation’s wild bighorn heritage for their private profit? Indeed, if there’s conflict with bighorn survival or even potential reintroduction, domestic sheep should be eliminated from public lands.

One solution is permit buyout, but even in the absence of a permit buyout, federal land managers should do what they are paid to do—which is manage these lands for the public trust and national heritage. When private use compromises that public heritage as it does with the presence of domestic sheep near bighorns, then the agencies should decide in favor of the wildlife and its habitat they are entrusted to protect.







  1. Phil Maker Avatar
    Phil Maker

    Let’s not forget the role of the Nez Perce Tribe in instigating the changes in USFS/BLM sheep-grazing on the Payette NF, that has prompted other forests to follow suit and close allotments.

    1. Robert Goldman Avatar
      Robert Goldman

      One of these days, at least part of the Wallowa Valley should be returned to the Nez Perce, the peaceful tribe who saved the entire Lewis and Clark expedition members. With only 7,000 or 8,000 residents, the Wallowa has room for the Nez Perce to return.

  2. Robert Goldman Avatar
    Robert Goldman

    Excellent, George.

  3. Kirk Robinson Avatar
    Kirk Robinson

    Here in Utah some of us are involved in an effort to persuade the FS to close some grazing allotments in the High Uintas Wilderness. There is a small bighorn herd in the eastern part of the range – a result of reintroduction three decades ago or more – that has not been able to grow because of 10 sheep grazing allotments in the mountains. One of them is leased to the Uinta-Ouray tribe of Utes. All the rest are leased by just three families, if I am not mistaken, all living in Uinta County, WY. Buyout discussions have been held with the permittees, but (according to one knowledgeable source) they were told by Orrin Hatch not to worry – that their leases will not be terminated. Would that we could terminate Orrin Hatch’s political career.

    1. Phil Maker Avatar
      Phil Maker

      You can terminate Mr. Hatch- don’t re-elect him next time he’s up.


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George Wuerthner