Last month, on a remote, snow-dusted rise high in Montana’s Gravelly Mountains, I found myself beset by an army of livestock.
The sheep came over the hill in martial lines, a fleecy platoon framed by the teeth of the Madison Range, guard dogs nipping at their cloven heels like irate sergeants. The four-legged troops quickly captured our knoll, and my companions and I retreated to our car to watch the flock tug at the brown grass. Eventually a solitary horseman appeared along the ridgeline and began coaxing the sheep toward lower ground. It was mid-September, and the mountain grazing season had reached its end — for the final time, if conservationists get their way. I had, perhaps, witnessed the last hurrah of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge flock.
From Wayne Hage to Cliven Bundy, Westerners have been clashing over livestock since Gus McCrae and Captain Call first drove cattle into Montana. Even within that proud tradition, however, the current tussle over the Helle & Rebish/Konen flock stands out. Together, the families graze around 8,000 sheep from July to September on seven allotments in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, a gentle but wild swell overlooking the plains of the Madison Valley. The sheep live on private land the rest of the year.
“We’re really careful to manage the way that we graze,” Evan Helle, a fourth-generation rancher, told the Madisonian this summer. “We graze our allotments in a certain rotation — clockwise for one year, counterclockwise the next. We have grazing practices that ensure the natural resources are conserved.”
To their credit, the ranchers also use livestock protection dogs, a technique that’s been shown to reduce run-ins with predators. Nonetheless, domestic sheep and wildlife don’t mix well on public lands. In August 2013, a sheepherder in the Beaverhead killed a grizzly bear in self-defense, and the families have had numerous encounters with wolves as well. Such conflicts have become increasingly common throughout the West as predator populations rebound. As a Canadian rancher once told me, “Sheep are like candy to a bear.”
Grazing also impedes the recovery of bighorn sheep, which are susceptible to contracting pneumonia from their domestic brethren. To avoid devastating outbreaks, wildlife managers strive to prevent wild and domestic sheep from mingling on the range, effectively precluding bighorns from vast swaths of public land. In Montana, the standoff has proved disastrous to bighorn recovery. Though the state vowed in 2010 to create five new bighorn herds over a decade, there’s nowhere to stick the ungulates that wouldn’t expose them to disease. The situation has gotten so bad that some officials say Montana would be better off shipping its sheep to South Dakota.
Though bighorn sheep were reintroduced near the Gravelly Mountains in 2002, that herd comprises only 35 animals, far below the 125 that Montana deems a viable unit. Nearby herds are hardly faring better. According to conservationists, that’s because grazing’s giant hoofprint has kept bighorn herds too small and isolated to thrive.
“The question is, are we really going to allocate all this public land to domestic sheep influence?” demands Glenn Hockett, president of the Gallatin Wildlife Association. “Or are we going to reconnect the corridors between the Greenhorns and the Gravellys and the Snowcrest and the Centennials and the Madison Range and try to rebuild bighorn populations?”
Earlier this year, the GWA sued the U.S. Forest Service, claiming that the agency’s handling of the grazing allotments violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Forest Management Act. (WildEarth Guardians and the Western Watersheds Project later joined the suit.) The grievances are complex: Among other issues, the litigants aver that the Beaverhead-Deerlodge hasn’t considered grizzly conflicts in its NEPA analysis; failed to provide for a viable population of bighorn sheep in its forest plan; and didn’t disclose a semi-secret deal promising that it wouldn’t change the ranchers’ grazing allotments.
It all boils down to this: “Two permit-holders are having a huge impact on Montana’s ability to restore wild animals to wild places,” claims John Meyer, staff attorney at WildEarth Guardians.
After the GWA requested an injunction against grazing during the duration of the lawsuit, those permit-holders became an agricultural cause célèbre. Around 50 ranchers attended a hearing in July, and the Helle family later sold t-shirts to pay their legal fees. The judge ultimately denied the injunction, ruling that one more grazing season wouldn’t cause “irreparable harm” to wildlife, and the sheep headed into the hills once more.
Though the ranchers scored the most recent victory, the lawsuit is still pending; Meyer doesn’t expects a final decision until mid-2016. Ultimately, the attorney would prefer to go a less litigious route. This summer, conservation groups approached the ranchers about buying out their allotments, a strategy that the National Wildlife Federation has employed to remove livestock from 700,000 acres around the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. But the ranchers rejected the proposal.
What happens next is anyone’s guess. Should the conservationists win their lawsuit, the ranching families would have to find another place to graze their stock, perhaps on private land. Otherwise, domestic sheep will be back in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge next summer — and their wild cousins may remain sparse. “If we can’t have bighorns on Big Horn Mountain,” asks Hockett, “where are we gonna have ‘em?”
Ben Goldfarb is a correspondent at High Country News.