Sheep v. Sheep

A legal battle over Hells Canyon grazing could determine the future of wild sheep and sheep ranching across the West

  • Sheep v. Sheep

    BIGSTOCK; ISTOCK
  • Bighorn ewes and lambs near the Snake River in Hells Canyon

    VIC COGGINS OREGON DEPARTMENT OF FISH AND WILDLIFE
  • Domestic sheep ranching was at its height in the 1930s, when this photograph was taken in an area now closed to domestic sheep

    COURTESY FRANCES CASSIRER, IDAHO DEPARTMENT OF FISH AND GAME
  • SOURCES: IDAHO DEPARTMENT OF FISH AND GAME; THE FOUNDATION FOR NORTH AMERICAN WILD SHEEP
  • A bighorn, among a herd of sheep in the high country.

    WYOMING FISH AND GAME FILE PHOTO
  • A dead bighorn lamb in Hells Canyon

    FRANCES CASSIRER, IDAHO DEPARTMENT OF FISH AND GAME
  • A bighorn is airlifted during operations to trap and collar bighorns in Hells Canyon.

    VIC COGGINS OREGON DEPARTMENT OF FISH AND WILDLIFE
  • At Washington State University, Sri Srikumaran is researching why bighorns die from strains of pneumonia that don't affect livestock

    NATHANIEL HOFFMAN
  • Rock art featuring bighorn sheep in Hells Canyon

    FRANCES CASSIRER, IDAHO DEPARTMENT OF FISH AND GAME
 

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Back in 1979, Washington State University researcher Bill Foreyt was trying to create hybrid wild-domestic sheep for game farms. In every trial that he ran, all of the bighorn sheep, with one exception, died of some type of pneumonia before they could breed with the domestics. Follow-up experiments in the 1980s and '90s showed similar total or near-total bighorn die-offs after they were exposed to seemingly healthy domestic sheep. 

Scientists are still searching for the exact disease mechanism, but it is nearly universally accepted that the domestics make their wild cousins dangerously susceptible to various forms of pneumonia, which kills them off in droves and weakens their offspring for generations. These findings have led wildlife managers to recommend that the two types of sheep be kept away from one another in the wild. 

"Our early experiments really opened people's eyes," Foreyt says from his office at Washington State University's College of Veterinary Medicine. "The biology is very clear, but the politics change by the month." 

An Oregon court agreed a decade ago that domestic sheep on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest threatened the Hells Canyon bighorns when it upheld a decision to close sheep allotments on the Oregon side of the canyon. But the Oregon wild sheep surprised biologists by regularly crossing the Snake River and moving dangerously close to sheep allotments in Idaho. 

Since 1985, environmental groups have been asking the Payette National Forest in Idaho to protect bighorn populations by limiting domestic sheep grazing. Forest Service managers - charged with maintaining a viable population of bighorns in the Payette but not eager to evict Idaho domestic sheep ranchers who'd long had grazing allotments there - delayed a decision for decades. "Each year, they just kept turning sheep out and turning sheep out (to pasture)," said Craig Gehrke, director of The Wilderness Society's Idaho office. 

In 2003, the Payette National Forest published its updated 20-year forest plan. The plan - an environmental assessment and policy document that takes up an entire row of shelves at the Payette National Forest headquarters in McCall - discussed the threat that domestic sheep pose to bighorns. According to an Idaho Fish and Game Department official who worked on it, early drafts included a boundary line denoting where domestic sheep would be considered a risk to bighorns. But the boundary language was absent from the final forest plan. 

When the plan was released in 2003, a half-dozen environmental groups and the Nez Perce Indian Tribe challenged many of its provisions. In 2005, the chief of the U.S. Forest Service agreed that the Payette had not included adequate protections of big-horn sheep in its plan. 

Still, domestic sheep grazing continued. 

In 2006, the Forest Service published a 40-page Risk Analysis of Disease Transmission Between Domestic Sheep and Bighorn Sheep on the Payette National Forest. The report declared the Smith Mountain grazing allotment to be at "very high risk" and four others to be at "high risk" of transmitting disease from domestic to wild sheep. 

That spring, domestic sheep were again turned out into the Payette as usual. 

This April, after several last-minute attempts to reach an agreement, including offers to buy out some of the allotments, The Wilderness Society, an Idaho-based anti-grazing group called the Western Watersheds Project, and the Hells Canyon Preservation Council sued the Forest Service for failing to protect a viable population of bighorn sheep. (The Nez Perce Tribe filed a brief in support, but did not join the lawsuit.) The suit alleged the Forest Service had violated the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area Act and the National Forest Management Act. The attorney for the conservation groups, Lauren Rule of the environmental law firm Advocates for the West, also claimed that the Forest Service had allowed grazing to continue without conducting the environmental assessments required by the National Environmental Protection Act. 

Rule asked federal Judge B. Lynn Winmill for a preliminary injunction to halt grazing on six allotments in the Payette before the May 15 turnout date. "After dealing with this for years, we know that the agency won't do it unless they are put in a box and slowly submerged in cold water," says Jon Marvel, the famously confrontational director of the Western Watersheds Project. 

Faced with the lawsuit, the Payette National Forest quickly turned around and agreed to a bighorn-protection plan drawn up by the Nez Perce Tribe. At the beginning of May, in a packed federal courtroom in Boise, Assistant U.S. Attorney Deborah A. Ferguson told a judge that the Payette National Forest would stop grazing this season on portions of two domestic sheep allotments in the bighorn country on the Idaho side of the Snake River. Grazing on two allotments on the Salmon River would also be curtailed. 

For the first time in more than a century, Hells Canyon would be largely free of domestic sheep. 

The range closures meant that three out of the four ranching families that run sheep on the Payette had to suddenly change plans just before grazing season. Ron Shirts' 85,000-acre Smith Mountain grazing allotment rises from the depths of Hells Canyon to 8,000 feet, providing high-quality grass for a very long grazing season. But the Payette decision kept him out of a key part of it, and he had to sell 2,900 lambs in June, each 25 pounds lighter than it would have been by fall, when he normally sells his sheep. He reportedly lost more than $70,000 in the transaction, according to an Idaho sheep industry group. 

After initially backing the Forest Service in its fight with the environmental groups, Shirts sued the agency, arguing that the need for separation between bighorns and domestics on the Payette was based not on fact, but on "paranoia." Shirts, who has declined to speak to the press, also argued that the Forest Service did not have a right to modify his grazing permit without a one-year notification. 

"There is no demonstrable risk that domestic sheep transmit diseases to bighorn sheep if they make contact in free-ranging situation(s), thus there is no likelihood of imminent or irreparable injury to Plaintiff's interest if the (injunction) is denied," one of Shirts' court filings contends. 

Winmill rejected both of the rancher's arguments and upheld the Forest Service's decision. But although portions of the complaints by both Ron Shirts and the environmental groups have been resolved, the two cases have been combined and are still active before Judge Winmill. Depending on what the Payette National Forest does with sheep grazing next year, the case could still go to trial. 

Bighorn advocates and sheep ranchers are watching closely. A ruling that orders bighorn protection in the Payette or a permanent change in Forest Service sheep management practices could affect public-land grazers across the West.

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