Big money bill could restrict bighorn management


Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson isn't sheepish about legislative appendages. First it was a grazing rider that would allow the Bureau of Land Management to transfer permits without environmental review. His latest -- also tacked to the House’s 2012 Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations bill -- could decide the fate of a wooly battle waged for more than two decades. The measure would prevent Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service managers from using their funds toward any bighorn sheep management activities that would decrease domestic livestock grazing on federal lands through 2016.

When domestic sheep intermingle with bighorns, they can infect the wild sheep with pneumonia-causing microbes, bacterial afflictions that often lead to death in the wild sheep. But some areas where ranchers graze domestic sheep overlap with bighorn habitat. Land managers, environmental groups and woolgrowers have fought over the separation of domestic sheep from their bighorn cousins since 1985. High Country News writer Nathaniel Hoffman wrote about this conflict over where bighorn sheep were protected by separation and where domestic sheep ranchers could graze their flocks on public lands in Idaho's Payette National Forest in 2007. 

A precedent-setting decision came in summer 2010, even as bighorn herds -- which have struggled in the past -- have begun recovering from declines.. High Country News associate editor Sarah Gilman wrote that Payette National Forest managers decided to nix 70 percent of domestic sheep grazing on nearly 70,000 acres over the next three years.

Simpson says the Payette National Forest decision forced several sheep ranchers out of the business, estimating that 20,000 sheep had been removed from former grazing sites (subscription only). And if other forest managers make similar decisions nationally and block domestic sheep from 5 percent of grazing allotments overlapping bighorn habitat, the sheep and wool industry could lose nearly a quarter of its production, says American Sheep Industry Association Peter Orwick.

Simpson was confident about the rider's prospects as the bill moves to the Senate: the Idaho Statesman reported the congressman expected the rider to remain intact during negotiations. Proponents said the measure was introduced so other national forests couldn't follow in the steps of the Payette National Forest decision to separate the two species. It also was interpreted as a five-year break for the sheep industry in the wake of vaccine testing that looked like a solution, absent the need for separation of the species on public grazing lands.  But there's one nasty problem with that nasty bug --  it'll take more than five years to ramp up a vaccine to kill it, according to Washington State University professor Subramaniam Srikumaran.

He estimated a field vaccine was 10 to 15 years in the future in an Oct. 11 letter to primary research funder, Wild Sheep Foundation. The vaccine Srikumaran used on four bighorn sheep earlier this year required a series of booster shots, but was successful. The one Srikumaran envisions would be a single vaccine administered through food and would require additional time for a pharmaceutical company to manufacture in large quantities.

The Wilderness Society, National Wildlife Federation and 12 other environmental groups sent a letter (subscription only) to Simpson requesting he remove the rider last week.

"We reiterate that protecting and rebuilding bighorn sheep populations depends upon effective separation from domestic sheep," the letter said, also noting the timing of the vaccine.

Environmental groups also tried to convince Senate Interior Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., to remove the language from the bill. Greater Yellowstone Coalition Idaho director Marv Hoyt said the language “is sending a strong signal to the Forest Service, don’t mess around with domestic sheep grazing.”  Hoyt also worries it will impact the health of bighorn herds in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

Simpson's rider was absent along with other riders in the Senate's draft appropriations bill released Oct. 14. The bill was accompanied with a letter from Chairman Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Ranking Member Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-AK, stating the draft served as a starting point for negotiations with the House. But it is unclear what prospects the rider has in the final bill the House and Senate will produce. 

Kimberly Hirai is an intern at High Country News.

Image courtesy Flickr users gharness and funpics47.

High Country News Classifieds