A woolly problem

 

Domestic sheep and bighorn sheep don't mix. Or at least they shouldn't, say most biologists. The tame sheep tend to infect their wild cousins with fatal pneumonia. In Idaho's Payette National Forest, the Forest Service has even banned grazing in areas where flocks might encounter bighorns (see our story Sheep v. Sheep). Recent developments have made the state's bighorn and sheep ranching conflicts even more contentious.

The sheep industry and a few scientists maintain that there's no proof that domestics transmit disease, so there's no need to shut down grazing allotments on bighorn turf. One of the most vocal critics, Marie Bulgin, head of the Caine Veterinary Teaching and Research Center in Caldwell, Idaho, a state animal lab, has testified that "seventeen years plus of research by numerous researcher (sic) has not been able to prove that such is the case." Now, an advocacy group is charging that despite Bulgin's statements, Caine Center researchers have known for the past 15 years that domestic sheep can give deadly diseases to wild bighorns. The AP reports:

 

(In 1994) scientists from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and the Caine center, also in Caldwell, used DNA tests to determine the parasites that caused the disease in the bighorns were biochemically identical to bacteria found in the domestic sheep they had mixed with. Transmission "likely occurred between the species on the range," according to an abstract obtained by The Associated Press.

Marie Bulgin ...  said she didn't know about the studies, though they were conducted by her center's scientists. Bulgin is a ranching advocate who has long insisted there is no evidence that bighorn sheep can get sick from domestic sheep on rangeland.

Bulgin says she'll "rethink her position", but state policies continue to favor sheep producers. Earlier this year, Gov. Butch Otter signed a bill that requires the Department of Fish and Game and sheep ranchers to come up with a plan by early August to keep bighorns away from domestic flocks grazing on public land -- rather than keeping  domestic sheep out of areas frequented by bighorn. The bill also says that wild sheep which come into contact with domestic sheep must be relocated or killed so they don't spread disease. Fish and Game is now considering whether to kill an entire herd of 11 bighorn rams near Riggins because one of them mixed with domestic sheep, then returned to the herd coughing and sneezing. (The unfortunate situation shows the futility of  a law based on managing the movements of wild sheep.) The loss of these rams would be especially detrimental to the genetics of Idaho's bighorn population, since the rams are some of the few remaining native bighorn (most were transplanted from Canada).

The bill's passage also stalled a collaborative effort between the state, ranchers, hunters, and the Nez Perce Tribe to examine ways to protect bighorns as well as sheep producers. The Idaho Bighorn/Domestic Sheep Working Group’s meetings have been called off so the state can complete its bighorn management plan by the August deadline. Last week, the tribe pulled out of the group entirely, saying that the bill undermined its efforts.

Another, more focused collaborative group is still moving forward. It  includes the tribe, the American Sheep Institute, and the Wild Sheep Foundation and is concerned just with sheep grazing on the Payette National Forest: "We agreed we wanted healthy bighorn populations and we wanted healthy domestic sheep operations, and we didn't want to be in court," says Margaret Soulen-Hinson in an Idaho Statesman story. Sounds like principles that the state should embrace too.