Ranchers face bighorn sheep problems

Cattle Market & Farm Reports, Editorials
Oct 2, 2006
by WLJ

—Bighorn sheep cause cattlemen to halt production.

Ranchers are familiar with the challenges associated with sustaining the wildlife population and working cooperatively with the environment. Often heard called the best stewards of the land, ranchers have constantly compromised with environmentalists and federal institutions to take a proactive stance. Despite ranchers’ efforts, some decisions being made are causing ranchers to halt production. Most recently, environmentalists are praising a decision made by the Forest Service that will suspend livestock grazing in parts of Nevada and California, primarily near the eastern Sierra.

The decision was a result of constant legal battles raging between ranchers and conservationists vying to restore bighorn sheep to the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forests, as well as near the Yosemite National Park. Bighorns are generally found on steep slopes and high alpine meadows just north of Yosemite National Park to the south of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.

“It is refreshing and encouraging to see the Forest Service listening to and responding to biologists, including its own,” said Karen Schambach, California director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

The decision was made in an effort to restore the endangered bighorn sheep to the area. Ranchers affected by the decision said they have been battling environmentalists over the protection of the bighorn sheep since the 1800s. Executive director of the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association, Rachel Buzzetti, said this issue is nothing new and has been yet another hurdle for producers in California and Nevada to deal with.

“We have already lost over 50,000 acres of prime sheep and cattle range due to environmentalists claiming to be trying to protect endangered species,” said Floyd Rathbaun, who is the range consultant for F.I.M. Corporation located in Nevada's Smith Valley. F.I.M. is the largest sheep ranch in the national forest affected by the recent regulations.

The logic used by the Forest Service to make the decision was reportedly based on the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The bighorn sheep were placed on the endangered species list in 1999. The concern on behalf of the Forest Service and environmentalists is that domestic sheep are spreading diseases to bighorn sheep, preventing any significant population growth. The environmentalists have scientists testifying that domestic sheep are causing bighorns to become infected with fatal diseases, while agriculturalists say the science is not science, simply circumstantial, and have their scientists testifying the opposite. An interagency task force recommended a buffer zone of between nine and 14 miles between the two species, which environmentalist say was the driving force behind the recent curtailment of grazing privileges. Daniel Patterson, an ecologist for the Center for Biological Diversity, said domestic sheep are increasingly threatening bighorns with a pneumonia-like disease known as Pasteurella.

Since declared endangered, the bighorn sheep population has more than doubled. When first placed on federal listing, there was reportedly an approximate 125 head. Now the population has grown to over 300 head, according to Patterson.

Fred Fulstone, age 86, owner of F.I.M., said he has been around bighorn sheep for 70 years and knows more about them than activists trying to limit grazing to “supposedly” protect them.

“We don’t bother the bighorns and they don't bother us,” said Fulstone. “They don’t care about the bighorns, they just want our land. The greenies want to take all the country up there.”

Fulstone, who has testified in Washington D.C. to protect his property along with other ranches, said the supposed fact that bighorns are being diseased by domestic sheep is a myth that has been disproved multiple times by credible scientists, microbiologists and veterinarians.

“Domestic sheep and the Sierra Nevada Bighorns have grazed together in close proximity for 70 years and no die offs,” said Fulstone. “It boils down to the California Fish and Game trying to railroad the final recovery plan for Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep. This should be stopped because the bigger part of it is not true. Plus, the bighorns were illegally listed on the endangered list in the first place. It's proven that bighorns are not a distinct population as listed.”

Anette Rink is a veterinarian and serves as the laboratory supervisor for the Animal Disease and Food Safety Laboratory in Reno, NV, and has testified on behalf of Fulstone and other ranchers based on years of research. She said it is not impossible for diseases to be spread if there were nose-to-nose contact, but calls it unlikely.

“The trouble is, the only evidence is circumstantial. There is no hard evidence of any such thing happening after at least 16 years of looking,” said Rink, who said Pasteurella may be somewhat host-specific and is triggered by stress.

Rathbun said the bighorns already more than likely carry the pathogen, then stress triggers it, thus causing sickness or death.

“They have no scientific proof; absolutely none,” said Rathbun.
Rink said the major problem is soon to be a result of simply avoiding the real problem.
“The major problem with the reluctance of biologists to accept that domestic sheep are not the major cause of disease die-offs of bighorns is that it excuses them from looking for any other causes. They feel their present management is adequate and changes in management other than removing domestic sheep from the range aren’t necessary,” said Rink. “Unfortunately, it will be too late for the range sheep producer when it becomes obvious that even without the presence of domestic sheep, the bighorns are very susceptible to disease and are still very fragile, will still experience nutritional and environmental stress, and will still die off.”

The Washington D.C.-based Public Lands Council, representing the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and the American Sheep Industry, is among those critical of the Forest Service’s decision. In a letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service earlier this year, Jeff Eisenberg, the executive director of the council, said federal wildlife officials had pledged in the mid-1980s that any efforts to reintroduce the bighorns would not result in any reductions in domestic grazing.

“You have our word that we will not require any changes in the use of your allotment because of bighorn concerns,” Forest Service officials said in a letter to Fulstone on Dec. 20, 1989.

Eisenberg said it was just one example of how ranchers have been treated unfairly in this particular issue.

“Breaking promises to landowners to facilitate the relinquishment of federal permits will only create bad feelings and resistance to conservation efforts,” he wrote May 9 in the letter to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Eisenberg does not buy into the alleged fact that the stricter regulations have anything to do with ESA.

“These people say the craziest things,” he said. “We’re looking for a solution that would take into consideration the needs of bighorn sheep, as well as the needs of the ranchers who have been in place for decades, a solution that takes care of the needs of domestic sheep,” he said. “This (recent restrictions) doesn’t address the longer term concerns.”
Fulstone is more worried about the future than he is the present.

“This bighorn problem is very serious to our cattle and sheep industry grazing on public lands. Thousands of cattle and sheep have already been put off public lands here in the West,” said Fulstone. “I believe the livestock industry should get together and form a coalition and fight this problem before anymore permits are cancelled.” — Mike Deering, WLJ, Editor