One of the hottest wildlife issues this winter could be about bighorn sheep. You might remember last spring when U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill ordered ranchers to move their sheep off of five allotments on the Payette National Forest in Hells Canyon to protect bighorns.
He ordered ranchers to keep their sheep off of another allotment on the Nez Perce Forest in November for the same reason. That has angered the sheep ranching community and headed it toward a political show-down with sportsmen and environmentalists.
Scientists have long believed that domestic sheep are responsible for infecting bighorn sheep with an pneumonia-like disease that can be quite devastating to bighorn populations. There is strong evidence that shows the wild sheep get sick and often die when the two species mix.
Ranchers are not convinced and many are bitter because bighorns were reintroduced into many areas that now environmentalists want the domestic sheep moved out. Ranchers even went along with the sportsmen groups at the time because they were told they would not have to move.
But disease continues to kill off bighorn sheep in Hells Canyon. Only 20 percent of the lambs in the herd survived in 2007, according to the Oregonian.
In response to lobbying by ranchers, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter asked the Idaho Department of Agriculture and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game in October to assemble a working group to develop a statewide policy addressing issues of domestic sheep and bighorn sheep in Idaho. This panel held a meeting in December and another this week.
Cal Groen, Fish and Game’s director told me he is seeking a collaborative solution to the problem that protect bighorns and ranching. But that’s going to be a tall order.
The Western Watersheds Project was involved in both lawsuits that led to the orders to move the sheep out of Hells Canyon and they plan to continue pursue legal action to move domestic sheep away from bighorn populations.
I spoke with Neil Thagart, spokesman for the 10,000-member Foundation for North American Wild Sheep in Cody, Wyo. last month and he said the only solution is to keep domestic sheep and bighorns apart.
The Idaho Woolgrowers Association may go to the Idaho Legislature for a solution. And Tuesday the Cassia County Board of Commissioners voted to ask Otter to relocate bighorn sheep from the South Hills near Twin Falls because of conflicts with domestic sheep.
This conflict epitomizes the changing values of the West. Scientists have not been able to resolve the health issue but ranchers long had the power to dictate how the issue would be handled.
Now, the value of bighorn sheep both for hunting and scenic enjoyment is turning the politics.
Bighorns, after all, are not wolves.