Idaho’s political leaders have gone the extra mile to help private sheep ranchers to continue to graze their flocks in bighorn sheep habitat with limited success.
Now state officials aren’t just stepping up to protect private sheep ranchers, they want to help a federal agency keep domestic sheep in bighorn habitat. You might remember last year I wrote about the U.S. Sheep Experimental Station at Dubois that has an annual budget of $2.25 million to conduct research on the 28,000 acres of mountain meadows in the Centennial Mountains.
For years they also have been grazing two bands, about 1,000 sheep, in the nearby Lemhi Mountains on Bureau of Land Management-controlled land known as the Bernice allotment. When Fish and Game wrote its bighorn sheep plan in 2010 it was designed to keep domestics and bighorns apart. It designed the area bighorn habitat.
But lawmakers made sure than if there was conflict in these areas, it was the bighorns that must be moved or killed. Fish and Game radio-collared several bighorns in the south Lemhi range, that showed bighorns and domestics mixed on the Bernice allotment.
The south Lemhi Range bighorn sheep population – a native population, never extirpated, comprises one of the largest bighorn populations in Idaho. Despite this the Agricultural Research Service never responded to the state to do the minimum to protect the bighorns, develop a sheep management plan with Fish and Game.
Facing lawsuits, the BLM decided to kick the government sheep out of the Lemhis after this year. That brought a letter from Gov. Butch Otter to BLM State Director Steve Ellis.
Even though the government ignored his Fish and Game Department, Otter asked Ellis to overrule the decision and keep the federal sheep in bighorn habitat.
“During that time and even before IDFG has not documented any major die offs of bighorn sheep,” Otter wrote.
Ellis wrote back that he was working with Sheep Station officials to find alternative range outside of bighorn habitat, the kind of win-win situation that conservation and sportsmen have been pushing for in other areas.
“This approach is consistent with our multiple use mission which includes the protection of bighorn sheep habitat and well as opportunities for domestic sheep grazing and research, where appropriate,” Ellis wrote.
For years federal agencies like the Forest Service and the BLM were forced to back off efforts to protect bighorns from the diseases domestic sheep carry. While Idaho Department of Fish and Game were trying to restore the bighorns that are among the top trophies for hunters and icons of the western mountains, Idaho’s elected leaders were seeking to limit its powers.
Meanwhile tribes, environmental groups like the Wilderness Society and sportsmen’s groups like the Bighorn Sheep Foundation were looking for a middle ground that would protect bighorns in their best habitat, i.e. Hells Canyon and the Salmon River area, while accepting domestic sheep priority in places like the South Hills near Twin Falls.
Other groups, including Western Watersheds Project, simply wanted the sheep ranchers off of public range. Their best allies were in the Idaho Legislature, which undercut collaborative efforts and allowed the federal courts to repeatedly rule in favor of the bighorns.
In the big picture the issue appears intractable. But in some case-by-case efforts like he Bernice allotment there is a chance for both sides to get what they need.