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

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

  • Domestic sheep ranching was at its height in the 1930s, when this photograph was taken in an area now closed to domestic sheep

  • A bighorn, among a herd of sheep in the high country.

  • A dead bighorn lamb in Hells Canyon

  • A bighorn is airlifted during operations to trap and collar bighorns in Hells Canyon.

  • At Washington State University, Sri Srikumaran is researching why bighorns die from strains of pneumonia that don't affect livestock

  • Rock art featuring bighorn sheep in Hells Canyon


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The history of southwest Idaho and eastern Oregon is intimately tied to sheep herding. Sheep are still trailed through the resort town of Sun Valley every fall in a popular festival. A romantic mystique surrounds sheepherders, once mainly Basque immigrants and now largely Peruvians who spend months at a time in the wilderness guarding the flocks. 

But in reality, the sheep industry has been in decline for 70 years. 

Sheep ranching peaked in Idaho in the 1930s with 2.7 million head of breeding stock. Today, less than a quarter of a million ewes are grazed in Idaho, according to the Idaho Wool Growers Association, an industry group. Though current flocks are small in comparison to sheep ranching's heyday, it is increasingly difficult to find grazing land, says Stan Boyd, a sheep industry lobbyist and director of the Idaho Wool Growers. "America's never been hungry, I guess, so they'd rather recreate on the land," Boyd says. 

But shrinking rangeland is only one factor in the precipitous decline of the sheep industry. After World War II, lamb lost favor as an American meat of choice. Then the price of wool, once more valuable than the meat, took a nosedive as high-tech synthetic fabrics came on the market. 

Of late, lamb prices have made a comeback, and demand for racks and chops in the U.S. outpaces supply. Still, about half of the lamb in the country is now imported, Boyd says. The remaining large sheep operations in the West depend on public rangeland to feed their ewes year-round. In fact, about a third of the sheep in the U.S. spend some part of the year grazing on public land, according to the American Sheep Industry Association, a national group representing sheep producers. 

Margaret Soulen, who grazes 9,000 ewes on a combination of private, state and federal lands, including the Payette, says that if her grazing allotment were cancelled, it would mean the end of her family's 80-year sheep-ranching history. Without the allotment, she says, she would have to sell off 1,500 acres of prime riverfront real estate in Valley County near McCall, Idaho. Then she would consider dividing up 50,000 acres of southwest Idaho ranchland into hundreds of ranchettes, maybe saving a few acres to run some cattle. 

But she would much rather not sell out: "We like what we do," Soulen says. 

Across the West, in fact, sheep ranchers see the spread of bighorns as a threat to their way of life. "Our ranches, some of these ranches that are 130 years old, are being destroyed by bighorns, and you never know when they're going to show up," says Tom McDonnell, former director of natural resources for the American Sheep Industry and now a consultant for the livestock group. Because of grazing restrictions related to bighorn sheep, McDonnell says, more than 654,000 sheep grazing months - that is, enough forage for a ewe and a lamb for a month - have been lost across the West. 

But the industry is geared up to fight the trend, and some Western politicians still seem to value sheep ranching more than bighorn sheep. "The grazing industry is an important part of management of the wild lands," says embattled Idaho U.S. Sen. Larry Craig, R, who has long advocated for the ranchers on the Payette. "This area lends itself to grazing." 


When Dr. Sri Srikumaran, a microbiologist at Washington State University at Pullman, steps up to the fence, two dozen bighorn sheep run to him. One feisty bighorn he calls Say (pronounced "sigh") head-butts his fist, as if the Sri Lankan-born vet and the captive bighorn were soul brothers. 

Srikumaran holds the nation's only endowed chair for bighorn sheep research, a position funded in large part by the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep. He works at Washington State's College of Veterinary Medicine, alongside Bill Foreyt, the research pioneer in bighorn-domestic sheep disease, and Tom Besser, an animal epidemiologist who is conducting field research on bighorn disease in Hells Canyon. 

Srikumaran, who once worked with elephants in Sri Lanka and made his career in cattle disease research at the University of Nebraska, says that by December 2008 he will know why bighorn sheep die so often from pneumonias that do not affect cows and domestic sheep nearly as severely. "Eventually, we want to vaccinate these animals so they are not susceptible to the disease," Srikumaran says. 

Besser is looking at the problem from another angle. He saw that bighorns were dying from different strains of pneumonia, even within the same population. Besser wanted to know what might set off the disease in a free-ranging bighorn sheep population. With the help of field biologists, Besser has isolated a type of bacteria called mycoplasma ovipneumoniae that appears in samples from every wild sheep die-off studied so far. It does not appear in healthy bighorns, and it is carried by domestic sheep. 

Besser has yet to determine if wild sheep get the mycoplasma from domestic sheep. But he does say that the presence of the bacteria in bighorns can lead to pneumonia. The accumulated weight of bighorn research was enough for the Payette National Forest to conclude in its February 2006 Risk Assessment that "there is consensus among wildlife biologists and veterinarians experienced in bighorn sheep management that domestic sheep and bighorn sheep must be kept separated in order to maintain healthy bighorn populations." In November 2006, the Payette convened a panel of experts who concluded that "contact (between bighorns and domestic sheep) increases risk of subsequent bighorn sheep mortality and reduced recruitment, primarily due to respiratory disease." 

Greg Dyson, director of the Hells Canyon Preservation Council in Le Grande, Ore., contends scientists who don't believe domestic sheep are a threat to bighorns are in a distinct minority. "There are a couple scientists out there who will say that there is not a connection, and my analogy to that is the climate change scientists who up to at least a year or so ago were saying there's just not proof of global warming. And now I think all that has been squelched because the evidence is just overwhelming," Dyson said. "And that's really where we're at with this disease issue." 

Still, there are credentialed researchers - including several who participated in the Payette science panel - who disagree. 

Marie Bulgin, coordinator of the Caine Veterinary Teaching and Research Center in Caldwell, Idaho, a state animal lab, has been one of the loudest critics. "The whole risk analysis of disease transmission between domestic sheep and bighorn sheep (BHS) on the Payette National Forest (PNF) is based on the premise that domestic sheep transmit disease to BHS on the range," Bulgin wrote in comments to the Payette a year ago. "Seventeen years plus of research by numerous researcher (sic) has not been able to prove that such is the case."

Bulgin, who raises sheep in southwest Idaho and is the president of the Idaho Wool Growers Association, believes that many biologists are "just as biased toward bighorn sheep as I would be toward domestic sheep." She and her colleagues say that because Foreyt's experiments took place in pens, they are not valid. Contact between domestic and wild sheep is much different on the range, they say, particularly when herders and dogs are present. 

Anette Rink, who supervises a state animal laboratory in Reno, Nev., is also a critic of bighorn sheep disease research. In a September 2006 memo, Rink wrote that disease transmission from domestic to bighorn sheep is a "legend" and a "perception perpetuated by some individuals." In the same note, written on Nevada Department of Agriculture letterhead, Rink urges the U.S. Department of the Interior to look at the bighorn sheep issue in light of its effect on farmers and ranchers, "our only environmentally sustainable tool to manage invasive species and preserve open spaces for wildlife, livestock and for recreation." 

That memo was addressed to former Interior Department Deputy Assistant Secretary Julie MacDonald. MacDonald, who oversaw the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and was involved in many endangered species decisions, resigned earlier this year after an inspector general's report found that she had aggressively manipulated scientific reports to minimize endangered species protections and shared internal documents with agriculture industry groups. A Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman says that MacDonald did not attempt to influence the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep's endangered species listing. (The Nevada bighorn is one of two bighorn sheep populations protected under the Endangered Species Act.) 

But Rink, who maintains that the Sierra Nevada bighorns are not distinct from other desert bighorn populations and should never have been listed, says, "MacDonald had an interest in looking at the bighorn sheep listing."

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