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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Over the course of the last decade, bighorn sheep advocates have made significant efforts to appease domestic sheep ranchers who would be affected by limits on public-lands grazing. The Foundation for North American Wild Sheep, which has raised $50 million to restore bighorn sheep populations across the West, including those in Hells Canyon, has offered to buy up key grazing allotments in the Payette National Forest numerous times. It has also looked for alternative range for domestics and suggested converting the Payette ranching operations to cattle, as sheep operators have done in other bighorn areas. The foundation offered Ron Shirts up to $250,000 for his grazing permit; he wanted $2.5 million. 

Although the wild sheep foundation did not join the lawsuit, it did weigh in on legal strategy. And now the group's director, Raymond Lee, believes that the way the Payette is handling its bighorn population may be copied by other national forests and possibly also by the managers of other federal and state lands leased for sheep grazing. "People in (Washington) D.C. are aware of this, and they want to make sure this is the right decision to make," Lee says. 

A set of six statements from the Payette's science panel - including the assertion that contact between bighorn sheep and domestic sheep should be prevented on the range because of concerns for disease transmission - is now being referred to as the "Payette Principles." And as Lee pushes for a coordinated federal policy on bighorn sheep management on federal lands, the Payette Principles may serve as a starting point. After all, Lee says, the livestock industry asked for the best science on bighorn-domestic sheep interaction - and got it. 

"The best science available has been applied, and the response back is, 'Well, geez, now we need to go back to tradition,' " he says. 

But the ranchers haven't given up. Shirts and his company, Shirts Brothers Sheep, lost their attempt to obtain an injunction that would have allowed grazing this season. But Shirts' attorney says the underlying lawsuit will continue. Meanwhile, the sheep industry in Idaho has threatened to ask the generally pro-ranching state Legislature to limit Idaho Fish and Game's ability to reintroduce wild sheep. And grazing permit-holders on the Payette hope to influence the forest's bighorn protection plan. 

But there is another player in the Hells Canyon sheep dispute - one that was here long before the sheep industry or the environmental groups. Even before Don Moore went looking for the last of the bighorns in Hells Canyon, Indian tribes depended on wild sheep for spiritual and physical sustenance. 

For the Nez Perce, the debate is not about sheep disease. 

"It doesn't matter to us who gave what to who," says Keith Lawrence, director of wildlife programs for the tribe. "We're really focused on the management issues rather than being drawn into what we don't or do know about the disease." 

Lawrence, who is not Indian but came to work for the tribe in 1982 as its first wildlife biologist, points to a set of maps on the wall of his office. One shows the tribe's pre-1855 territory. That land now spans five national forests in Idaho, Washington and Oregon. 

It was all bighorn habitat in the 19th century. 

The Nez Perce would like to see 10,000 bighorn sheep returned to their historic range, land that the tribe reserved for hunting and cultural use when it ceded the bulk of its territory to the United States in the mid-1800s. The tribe has been involved in bighorn restoration for years and in some ways has taken the lead, looking for ways to change grazing patterns to protect both bighorns and ranchers. The tribe wrote the grazing guidelines that the Payette forest implemented this summer. And tribal biologists have put together a proposal to study the sheep along the Salmon River. 

The tribe is also working with forest planners on a comprehensive program to protect Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep in the Payette National Forest. It is due out this fall. 

And as next spring and the next grazing season roll around, if the federal courts and the Forest Service do not continue to interpret environmental laws in ways that favor bighorn sheep, the tribe has a trump card. It can make a claim that treaty rights require the U.S. government to protect mountain sheep. But that's a move the Nez Perce would prefer to avoid. 

"The tribe has its own story of being torn from the land," Lawrence said. "Nobody wishes that on anyone." 

The author is an independent journalist based in Boise, Idaho.

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