WWP and HCPC Win Protection of Bighorn Sheep and Closure Of The Last Domestic Sheep Grazing Allotment On The Nez Perce National Forest

WWP Online Messenger #131

Western Watersheds Project and our co-plaintiff, the Hells Canyon Preservation Council have won another important victory protecting Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep from a fatal disease transmitted by domestic sheep.

This federal court win stops grazing by domestic sheep on the last domestic sheep grazing allotment on the Nez perce National Forest located in central Idaho just east of Riggins, Idaho.

Read the Order (pdf)

Here is today’s (11/15) story from the Lewiston, Idaho Morning Tribune:

Ruling: Domestic Sheep Must Go

By Eric Barker
Thursday, November 15, 2007

A federal judge ruled ranchers can't turn out domestic sheep this fall and winter on a Nez Perce National Forest grazing allotment where bighorn sheep are known to roam.

The ruling hints at what could be the end to domestic sheep grazing on public land in the Snake and Salmon river corridors where ranchers, wildlife managers and environmentalists have clashed for years over the danger domestic sheep pose to their wild cousins.

"A cautious approach is particularly appropriate here because the bighorns sighted near the Allison-Berg allotment are a native species. The loss of this herd would create an irreparable injury to the genetic diversity of bighorns," Winmill said in his decision

Ranchers argued there is no scientific proof domestic sheep are responsible for spreading a pneumonia-like disease to wild sheep, and the area in question is quite large and occupied by only a few bighorns. They also noted no die-offs have occurred in the area.

Winmill said even though science cannot say for sure domestic sheep are responsible for infecting bighorns with the disease, overwhelming evidence shows wild sheep become ill and often die when the two species mix. Because of that evidence, it has long been the policy of many land and wildlife management agencies to keep domestic sheep out of areas used by bighorns. Agencies like the Forest Service have retired or arranged for the buyout of many grazing allotments in places like Hells Canyon where domestic and wild sheep can come in contact with each other.

One holdout of that policy has been the Allison-Berg allotment and other nearby federal grazing allotments on the Payette National Forest. The Hailey-based environmental group Western Watersheds Project, which opposes public land grazing, filed a lawsuit earlier this year to stop the planned turnout of sheep on Allison-Berg and the five other allotments on the Payette Forest.

Before the case was resolved, the Forest Service opted to cancel grazing on the Payette allotments. But it initially approved fall and winter grazing on Allison-Berg, saying there is little evidence bighorn sheep use the area.

Western Watersheds moved forward with the lawsuit and the Nez Perce Tribe, which joined the suit as a friend of the court, submitted evidence showing bighorns do use Allison-Berg. That prompted the Forest Service to revisit the decision and eventually cancel the planned grazing.

But the ranchers who use the allotment had previously joined the suit and asked Winmill to overturn the agency's decisions. Winmill refused.

Mick Carlson of Riggins and his family have used the allotment, which is near the Gospel Hump Wilderness Area on the north side of the Salmon River east of Riggins, for eight decades. He will now have to seek alternative pasture for his sheep and said in court papers not being able to use the allotment would cost him $75,600.

"I have no place to go after the middle of December," he told the Tribune on Wednesday. "I'm going to have to feed hay or truck them out of here and put them on pasture somewhere 150 or 200 miles away."

Although Winmill's decision only applies to the fall and winter grazing season, the tone of his decision should be a strong signal to the Forest Service that all grazing in the area should end, said Jon Marvel, executive director of Western Watersheds.

"As the judge points out, the overwhelming preponderance of the evidence, that is agreed to by the scientists, is that when you bring domestic sheep in contact with the bighorns, the bighorns die," he said. "We will try and encourage the Forest Service to keep these allotments closed because the risk is too high."

Carlson said he is worried that might be the direction the agency is heading but he plans to fight to keep spring and summer grazing open on the allotment.

"They have the upper hand," he said. "I think the basic thing is they don't want any grazing. They didn't give a damn whether it's sheep or not. They just want you out of there."

Marvel also said his group would use the ruling to try to convince other public land managers to cancel grazing allotments in areas where bighorns and domestic sheep can mix.

Barker may be contacted at ebarker@lmtribune.com or at (208) 743-9600, ext. 273.