Wyoming grazing dispute threatens bighorn sheep

Rancher’s domestic sheep may pass fatal disease to a major bighorn herd.


Well before Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy started a new range war for refusing to pay his federal grazing fees, Frank Robbins was protesting his revoked cattle grazing permits in Wyoming. He wanted to draw attention to what he saw as unfair treatment from the BLM after he denied the agency’s request for an easement across the ranch he bought in 1994, he told Livestock Weekly. So he spent the frigid February of 2000 riding his mule Buford around the outside of the Bureau of Land Management office in Worland, Wyoming.

The long-standing conflict between Robbins and the BLM has flared up again recently, and this time it could have dire consequences for one of the lower 48’s largest bighorn sheep populations. 

After Robbins’ protest in 2000, he took his grievances to Washington, D.C. and accepted a settlement that forgave him for nine years of alleged grazing violations. In return, he agreed to allow BLM employees to access public land through his property.

But Robbins’ acrimony towards the agency continued, and his cow-calf operation and dude ranch garnered many complaints over the years. As High Country News reported in 2003, that included "cattle trespassing on the private property of neighbors and on the neighbors’ BLM grazing allotments; grazing too early, too late, and putting too many cattle on his allotments; blocking a neighbor’s use of a cattle-drive trail; claiming his cattle were on private pasture when they were on BLM pastures; refusing to obtain recreation permits for his dude ranch trail drives over BLM lands; and refusing to modify his grazing practices during drought.” 

So the BLM pulled all of Robbins' 14 cattle grazing leases again in the mid-2000s, and he had to shrink his herd to what his 75,000 acre ranch would support. The BLM did offer to return some of the cattle leases to Robbins, but he refused the deal.

Instead, a few years ago he started running domestic sheep on his ranch. The problem is that Robbins’ ranch is smack dab in the middle of prime habitat for 600 to 800 bighorns, and those sheep intermingle with even more herds. It’s well established that bighorn sheep can catch pneumonia from domestic sheep — often with fatal consequences for adults and newborns.

Bighorns in snow
Bighorn sheep populations have been recovering since 1900, but today they still face threats from habitat fragmentation and disease. Photo by Alan D. Wilson.

Robbins recently told the Casper Star-Tribune that the sheep were an economic necessity after the agency rescinded his public-land grazing permit, since sheep require less land than cattle. But it also looks like the decision was a form of protest against the agency.  The Star-Tribune reported that he sent the BLM a letter in April 2012 stating, “Since you decided not to return the permit in whole we have decided to go forward with sheep.”

“If and when a bighorn die-off occurs I want you to know that we feel we have done everything that we have been ask (sic) and been patient for years and you will have to answer for what happens,” Robbins wrote.

In the worst cases pneumonia from domestic sheep can obliterate bighorn herds, erasing years of work on the part of biologists, agencies and cooperative landowners. For example, in 2008, after some public land squatters brought domestic sheep and goats into Montana’s Elkhorn Mountains, a bighorn herd that biologists had been nursing along for over a decade crashed by 90 percent.

Thanks to reintroductions, habitat protection and restricted hunting, bighorn sheep have been making a comeback since they reached a low point of several thousand in the lower 48 around 1900. But there are still many populations that are perilously small, and many places that once harbored bighorns that no longer do.

Along with habitat loss, pneumonia is one of the biggest challenges for continued bighorn conservation. The main microbe responsible for the disease wasn’t identified until recently and scientists still have many questions, like why some herds are more susceptible than others. Researchers are learning that even when adult sheep survive and become immune, some populations struggle to recover, likely because the lambs continue to die from pneumonia before they are weaned. But since lamb carcasses don’t last long, that’s a very difficult phenomenon for biologists to observe. Efforts to develop a vaccine have been unsuccessful so far.

In short, pneumonia is insidious, dooming many of the West’s burliest mountain-dwellers to a mucous-y death. And wildlife biologists are at their wits’ end over it. The most obvious solution is to keep domestic and wild sheep separated. 

That's why wildlife conservation groups like the Wyoming Wild Sheep Foundation and the Wyoming Wildlife Federation are so worried about Robbins’ domestic sheep. It’s also why they, and many others from the ag and wildlife community, spent almost five years working on a plan for domestic and wild sheep to coexist in Wyoming. Now that work is at risk of unraveling. “We think the best thing for all of us is to have a good, viable domestic sheep industry in the state and a viable bighorn population,” says Steve Kilpatrick, executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation. “This just flies in the face of that.”

Furthermore, Wyoming Game and Fish has documented Robbins’ sheep trespassing on federal land, the Star-Tribune reported — a violation that could result in fines  and even livestock impoundment. But the BLM says its staffers need to document the trespassing themselves for it to count against Robbins. The BLM even suspended one of its biologists for insubordination after he asked a state biologist to check on Robbins’ leases for trespass during an aerial survey of grizzly bears, the Star-Tribune reported.

Now, the BLM is looking at restoring some of Robbins’ cattle grazing leases. Bighorn conservationists are asking the agency to move through that decision-making process quickly, and address the ongoing trespassing issue. If Robbins is permitted to run cattle again, they hope he will stop running sheep on the intermingled BLM and private lands near the top of the watershed -- that's where bighorns are more likely to interact with domestic sheep. That could take years to play out, though.“We’re not willing to sit and fold our hands on the domestic sheep issue,” says Kilpatrick. “The bighorn sheep simply can’t afford continuous years of trespass and potential commingling (with domestic sheep).”

The sheep versus sheep struggle, while still a reality throughout the West isn’t always a completely intractable feud. Similar to Wyoming, the woolgrower’s association in Montana has participated in bighorn conservation planning. Montana wildlife officials would like to reintroduce more bighorns to mountains throughout the state, but they’ve still struggled to find locations sufficiently far from domestic sheep. After fits and starts, they took a big step forward earlier this month, by releasing 52 bighorns to start a new herd in Southwest Montana’s Madison range.

Sarah Jane Keller is a High Country News contributor based in Bozeman, Mont.  Follow her @sjanekeller.

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