The Fish and Game Commission’s decision to continue its policy to move or kill bighorn sheep that have contact with domestic sheep has drawn ire from its main constituency, sportsmen and the Nez Perce tribe, and environmentalists.
But with the strong support of the Idaho Woolgrowers, the commission’s approval of an interim strategy for separating bighorn sheep from domestic sheep, ends an immediate crisis over management of the wild sheep that are one of the state’s most valuable wild assets. The Woolgrowers had threatened to go to the Legislature with a bill to resolve the issue themselves, which Fish and Game officials thought might include taking away some of their authority over bighorns. Even though the idea appears ridiculous on its face, it was only a little over a decade ago when lawmakers did just that with bison, which occasionally wander out of Yellowstone Park in Idaho.
Woolgrowers executive director Stan Boyd said he never considered transferring control of bighorns from Fish and Game. He simply wanted to help ensure sheep ranchers had a stronger voice in management.
Now the issue returns to the Forest Service, which manages bighorn habitat along with the Bureau of Land Management. What the Forest Service is likely to do is to stand by its decision to move sheep off of grazing allotments in Hells Canyon National Recreation Area where the domestic and wild sheep mix.
The Forest Service is convinced that when domestic sheep have contact with wild sheep they spread disease that cause large numbers of bighorn sheep to die. But the scientific issue is still not resolved.
As Boyd says, ranchers and wild sheep advocates can each find as many scientific papers and scientists to support their competing views about whether contact with domestics causes disease in wild sheep. But the agreement to separate the two species all but ends the scientific debate in management terms anyway.
Now the issue is where will the lines be drawn and how will the two sides work out a deal. The Nez Perce, with the surprising support of the two main sportsmen groups in the debate, want federal land managers to at least protect the entire occupied bighorn sheep habitat. Eventually they want more aggressive efforts to expand the sheep habitat.
Their idea is that they would buy out the ranchers whose operations would be affected. Or ranchers would be allowed to move into vacant grazing land elsewhere.
But the sheep ranchers who have survived some really hard times for their industry and are still standing, aren’t ready to give up. They also worry that environmentalists will use the bureaucratic process necessary for moving them to new ground to gum up the works.
Many ranchers are bitter about how the agencies and sportsmen groups convinced them they would not be hurt if they went along with efforts to reintroduce bighorns to places like Hells Canyon and the South Hills near Twin Falls. They cooperated and helped bring the bighorns back and now they are paying for it.
Economics aren’t at the heart of their arguments. They pay far less for the feed their sheep get from their public allotments than its worth. Replacing it is so costly it threatens to put them out of business or cuts into the profits they are finally seeing now that the dollar's drop has made them competitive with foreign producers.
They talk about the historic and cultural values of having sheep bands and camps spread out across Idaho highlands just as they have for more than a century. Ketchum holds a celebration in the fall around sheep herders trailing of the sheep through the area.
Laird Noh, a former state senator and sheepman, talks about the broader loss of open space and rural diversity when these ranchers are forced out and replaced by closed hunting reserves for the rich or sprawling developments.
It’s just another one of the many clash of values that lies at the heart of my public lands beat. But the management choice of killing bighorns instead of moving domestic sheep is going to be hard to sustain over the long run.
Bighorns aren’t wolves. They are worth tens of thousands of dollars to rich sportsmen and priceless to backcountry travelers in the Hells Canyon, along the Salmon River and in the Owyhee Canyonlands.
The two state agencies will continue working with ranchers, environmentalists, sportsmen and the tribes on a long term solution. Individual ranchers and environmentalists like the Western Watersheds Project will return to court.
But Boyd, Fish and Game and even most of their critics hope that continued talks will bring a balanced solution that allows bighorns to expand and ranchers to flourish.