Idaho reaches agreement with sheep producers

Aug 14, 2009

Idaho Fish and Game reaches agreement with sheep producers

Following a directive from the Idaho state government, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game has announced agreements with 11 sheep producers designed to maintain separation between domestic sheep and wild bighorn populations on public land throughout the state. That separation is necessary, according to biologists, in order to prevent the transfer of disease between the two species. The scientific consensus is that bighorn sheep can die as a result of diseases that they contract from their domestic counterparts to which they have little or no resistance.

The agreements come in the form of "Best Management Practices," or BMPs, each of which outlines a management method or practice to reduce contact between the two species. The specific practices detailed in each BMP vary as the risk of contact increases. Some ranchers have agreed to increasing the use of guard dogs, others will provide herders with satellite phones to better report bighorn sightings. Still others have agreed to truck their sheep to summer allotments rather than trail them through areas at high risk for contact. According to Jim Unsworth, deputy director of Fish and Game, if a bighorn is spotted commingling with or near domestic sheep in the areas at highest risk, Fish and Game may issue permits to remove the animal in order to prevent it from spreading disease among its own kind. Many ranchers have also agreed to allow Fish and Game to take" domestic sheep that stray off their allotments if that becomes necessary. As Unsworth points out, all of the practices listed are based on common sense.

"What it really comes down to," he says, "is everybody committing to pay extra attention and communicate better."

The ranchers whose plans have been approved graze their sheep on allotments throughout southern and central Idaho, but the agreements are largely the end result of a chain of events that began on the Payette National Forest more than a year ago. At that time, forest officials were directed to change their management plans to address the viability of bighorn sheep. The resulting draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was released in October of last year. In order to protect the bighorn population, it suggested reducing domestic grazing on the forest by 61 percent, a cut that had several sheep ranchers fearing for their livelihoods.

Sheep producers, who have watched their industry dwindle for decades, fear that an end to federal grazing permits in order to protect bighorn sheep may be strike a final blow to their way of life. Just 178,000 domestic sheep remain in Idaho, which was once home to well over 2 million. A large portion of the few remaining sheep ranchers depend heavily on federal allotments for summer grazing.

Forest officials were quick to point out that the draft EIS was only a suggestion and that no decision had yet been made. The final EIS will not be produced until this fall, and an official decision on grazing permits will likely not occur until the end of the year. In an attempt to help mitigate the situation, Idaho established a bighorn/domestic advisory group comprised of ranchers, government agencies, environmental concerns, and Indian tribes. Members of the group were charged with the task of finding some common ground on the issue and working towards a solution that was workable for all stakeholders. Idaho state legislators also got involved, introducing a bill that called for any bighorns that strayed into areas inhabited by domestic sheep to be killed or relocated. The bill also called for widespread testing of bighorns before permitting any transplanting of animals.

Though passed by both houses, the bill was viewed by many as extreme, and it was ultimately vetoed by Gov. Butch Otter. The next bill, which Otter signed in May of this year, directed Idaho Fish and Game to work with permit holders to address the situation, giving them 90 days to come up with agreements that both parties could endorse. Eighteen ranchers were identified grazing 60 allotments in key areas throughout Idaho. Besides the 11 agreements that have been reached, Fish and Game is still working on forging acceptable plans with three other ranchers. Four producers have declined to take part in the process entirely.

Although agreement between producers and Fish and Game at the state level is an improvement over previous years, the question on many minds is whether or not these efforts will have any effect on the U.S. Forest Service’s (USFS) decision with regard to sheep grazing on the Payette National Forest. The final EIS is still looming and, for many producers, this collaborative effort may come to nothing if USFS decides grazing cannot continue.

Although actions by the state cannot directly influence a federal decision, producers and agencies hope that USFS will at least take notice of what is being done.

Laura Pramuk, public affairs officer for the Payette National Forest, pointed out that USFS may have little leeway in the matter. "The Forest Service is under a requirement to provide habitat for the viability of all wildlife in the forest," she said. She also stated that the state’s effort will not affect the federal government’s eventual decision.

"The federal and state processes are concurrent but separate," said Pramuk. "The federal process is independent of what the state is pursuing. Once the federal decision has been made, it will be up to those in power to determine where the federal and state plans are and are not compatible."

According to Unsworth, the next step at the state level is to try and reassemble the advisory group, which largely fell apart after the state Legislature seemingly addressed the problems they were meant to discuss.

"We would like to bring people back together," said Unsworth. "We still want to move forward and talk about the distribution of bighorn and domestic sheep in Idaho and see if we can come to some agreement as to what areas of the state should receive priority for what species." — Jason Campbell, WLJ Correspondent