Inside Colorado’s ‘hotbed’ of wildlife conflict

Documents show flawed management leads to unnecessary killings of bighorn sheep.

 

Editor’s note: This story contains graphic photos that may be upsetting to some readers. 

A frozen, severed head arrived at the lab.

The bighorn sheep’s horns, splattered with bright red blood, curled tightly around its face. Its open eyes seemed alive, and its cracked mouth revealed yellowed teeth. Karen Fox, the lead wildlife pathologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife in Fort Collins, swabbed the animal’s nostrils. The ram had been shot by a state biologist because of potential exposure to a deadly bacteria called Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae, which Fox was now testing for.

Domestic sheep transmit the deadly virus to bighorns when the two species mingle on public lands. Wildlife officials are supposed to make sure that wild and domestic sheep don’t interact. But according to a trove of Colorado Parks and Wildlife documents recently obtained by High Country News, they mingle more frequently than previously known. And though failures on the part of ranchers, federal agencies and state wildlife managers are often to blame, it’s always the bighorns that pay the price.

See all of the documents obtained for this story here.

Ranchers who hold permits to graze sheep on public lands are responsible for keeping their sheep out of known bighorn range. But domestic sheep often stray from their flocks. And when gregarious bighorns get too close, the ranchers’ herd dogs and employees sometimes fail to haze them away. Yet the permit-holders are rarely penalized. Instead, whether or not disease transmission has been confirmed, any bighorns known to have interacted with domestic sheep — like the ram in Fox’s lab — are euthanized to prevent the possible spread of disease to their wild kin.

  • A domestic ewe trails a bighorn ram over rocky near Gunnison, Colorado, in December 2015.

    Courtesy Colorado Parks and Wildlife
  • In April 2016 in a community west of Durango, Colorado, a young bighorn ram jumped over fencing on private property into a pen holding six Navajo Churro domestic sheep. The bighorn was euthanized.

    Courtesy Colorado Parks and Wildlife
  • In April 2016 in a community west of Durango, Colorado, a young bighorn ram jumped over fencing on private property into a pen holding six Navajo Churro domestic sheep. The bighorn was euthanized.

    Courtesy Colorado Parks and Wildlife
  • In April 2016 in a community west of Durango, Colorado, a young bighorn ram jumped over fencing on private property into a pen holding six Navajo Churro domestic sheep. The bighorn was euthanized.

    Courtesy Colorado Parks and Wildlife
  • A stray domestic sheep wanders along a railroad track near Delta, Colorado, in March 2015.

    Courtesy Colorado Parks and Wildlife

Though their current population numbers pale in comparison to the distant past, bighorn sheep appear to be expanding their range in southwest Colorado, a sign that the populations are healthy. Rocky Mountain bighorns are considered a species “of conservation concern” at the state level, but are not currently listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.

But as the bighorns’ range expands, their encounters with domestic sheep surge. Wildlife biologists believe that disease transmitted from domestic sheep is the greatest threat to wild populations. Since 2015, Parks and Wildlife has killed nine bighorn sheep in southwest Colorado due to potential infection, a number that reflects confirmed encounters. Many more encounters are never witnessed, likely putting bighorns at risk. 

“We have a couple hundred domestic sheep allotments in the southwest and we have large, interconnected populations of bighorn sheep,” says Terry Meyers, the executive director of the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society. “It’s just a hotbed” of conflict.

Reports from wildlife managers and internal emails show that domestic sheep frequently wander into bighorn territory and vice versa.  In August 2016, three bighorn sheep were reported 100 yards from a flock of domestic sheep near Silverton. State wildlife biologists believed hazing would be futile, because the bighorns would just return. “It was finally decided that the best course of action would be to destroy the bighorn,” one biologist wrote in a report.

After the Placer Gulch encounter near Silverton, Colorado, in 2016, wildlife biologist Brad Weinmeister euthanized three bighorn. These photos were obtained through a Colorado Open Records Act request.
Courtesy Colorado Parks and Wildlife

In July 2017, two backpackers in the Weminuche Wilderness watched as a thousand domestic sheep spilled over a ridge and into their camp.  Soon after, they noticed an out-of-place animal — a single bighorn sheep. “He was trying to join the flock, nuzzling and sniffing the domestic sheep,” hiker Ben Perry remembers. “The herding dogs would notice him and a chase would ensue, but then after awhile, he would join back in.” Perry didn’t report the encounter until more than a year later, after reading a September HCN article about the issue. It’s likely that young bighorn rejoined his herd in the Weminuche Wilderness.

A pair of backpackers in Colorado’s largest wilderness area, the Weminuche, spotted a young bighorn mingling with a flock of domestic sheep. The hikers didn’t report the incident until more than a year after the encounter, when they also submitted the photo to High Country News.
Courtesy Ben Perry

In Conejos County in September 2017, District Wildlife Manager Rod Ruybalid received a report of nine stray domestic sheep. He found the wayward flock just west of Prospect Peak, an area frequented by bighorns where grazing isn’t permitted. Ruybalid tracked down the sheeps owner, who explained that 13 sheep had escaped his ranch more than three months earlier. Ruybalid’s report details a grand chase — over three days — to capture the runaways. Eventually, the rancher gave permission to kill them, but four of the 13 still remain unaccounted for.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife didn’t do much to punish the rancher for violating the so-called “no-stray condition” of his grazing contract — because, technically, the agency can’t. The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have authority over grazing practices on public land and are the only ones who can dole out penalties. Colorado Parks and Wildlife has jurisdiction over only the wildlife that roam those lands. On paper, at least, the agencies are required to work together and use “best management practices” to keep the species separated, including hazing bighorns away from grazing allotments with sheep dogs or gunfire. Ultimately, though, the feds make the final decision on how close to bighorn territory grazing is allowed. Proposed changes in Colorado’s management plans remain in limbo, because closing grazing allotments is highly contentious. 

In practice, a great deal of responsibility falls to permit-holders. One rancher, documents show, was commended by Parks and Wildlife officials as a “potential model” for “how these things should go.” Patt Dorsey, southwest region manager for the agency, wrote a letter thanking a Silverton-area permit-holder. “We appreciate that you and your herder noticed the bighorn sheep in proximity to the domestic sheep, attempted to haze the bighorns away, and called Colorado Parks and Wildlife,” she wrote. “You did things right.” That letter, however, was drafted after multiple strays from the same rancher’s flocks came into contact with bighorns, causing the killing of six bighorns in one year. Even then, the rancher did not face penalties.

Until grazing plans are amended to move domestic sheep further from bighorn territory, the only way state officials can maintain prudent separation of the species is to destroy bighorns. And according to internal emails, state biologists lack confidence that the situation will change. “I don’t believe killing them is the solution to prevent domestic interactions,” biologist Drayton Harrison, who has since retired, wrote in 2016. “The solution to minimizing conflicts is for the BLM/FS to change their grazing strategy.”

“I completely agree, Drayton,” Parks and Wildlife biologist Brad Banulis replied. “I just don’t have any confidence in the federal land managers to make a change.”

In the wildlife pathology lab in April, after evaluating the bighorn head  — “no disease detected” — Karen Fox checked her email. Rick Basagoitia, the wildlife biologist who’d killed the ram, had asked about the pathology results. He also wanted more information about disease transmission: If a bighorn mingles with its domestic cousins, how certain can field biologists like him be that it was infected? According to internal agency documents, Basagoitia is one of several field biologists who have expressed misgivings about the agency’s practice of destroying individual bighorns to prevent possible mass die-offs from infected animals. “It is entirely possible that this one sheep may not have had contact or may not have contracted anything,” Basagoitia wrote. “These are difficult decisions.”

Three bighorn sheep are seen mingling with a flock of domestic sheep on Forest Service grazing allotment in Placer Gulch near Silverton, Colorado, in September 2016. Wildlife biologists killed the animals to prevent them from infecting their herds.
Courtesy Colorado Parks and Wildlife

Paige Blankenbuehler is an assistant editor for High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.  

High Country News Classifieds
  • GRAND CANYON DIRECTOR
    The Grand Canyon director, with the Grand Canyon manager, conservation director, and other staff, envisions, prioritizes, and implements strategies for the Grand Canyon Trust's work...
  • ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a part-time Administrative Assistant to support the organization's general operations. This includes phone and email communications, office correspondence and...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • ONE WILL: THREE WIVES
    by Edith Tarbescu. "One Will: Three Wives" is packed with a large array of interesting suspects, all of whom could be a murderer ... a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR, SALAZAR CENTER FOR NORTH AMERICAN CONSERVATION
    The Program Director will oversee the programmatic initiatives of The Salazar Center, working closely with the Center's Director and staff to engage the world's leading...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS - WILD PLACES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Salary Range: $70,000-$80,000. Location: Denver, CO, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, Missoula, MT or potentially elsewhere for the right person. Application Review: on a rolling basis....
  • RIVER EDUCATOR/GUIDE + TRIP LEADER
    Position Description: Full-time seasonal positions (mid-March through October) Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10 year old nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of...
  • BOOKKEEPER/ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Position Description: Part-time, year-round bookkeeping and administration position (12 - 16 hours/week) $16 - $18/hour DOE Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10...
  • LAND STEWARD
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks a full-time Land Steward to manage and oversee its conservation easement monitoring and stewardship program for 42,437 acres in...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ventana Wilderness Alliance is seeking an experienced forward-facing public land conservation leader to serve as its Executive Director. The mission of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Development Director is responsible for organizing and launching a coherent set of development activities to build support for the Natural History Institute's programs and...
  • WILDLIFE PROJECT COORDINATOR
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation helps protect and conserve water, wildlife and wild lands in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by supporting organizations and people who...
  • TRUSTEE AND PHILANTHROPY RELATIONS MANGER,
    Come experience Work You Can Believe In! The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is seeking a Trustee and Philanthropy Relations Manager. This position is critical to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
    -The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region- The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful, complex, diverse,...
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    Position will remain open until January 31, 2021 Join Our Team! The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit land trust organization dedicated to...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...