Idaho’s political leaders have gone the extra mile to help private sheep ranchers continue to graze their flocks in bighorn sheep habitat, with limited success.
For years, federal agencies and the Bureau of Land Management were forced by the clout of the Idaho congressional delegation to back off efforts to protect bighorns from the diseases domestic sheep carry. While the Idaho Department of Fish and Game tried to restore the bighorns that are among the top trophies for hunters and are icons of the western mountains, Idaho’s elected leaders were seeking to limit the agency’s powers.
Meanwhile, tribes, environmental groups such as the Wilderness Society and sportsmen’s groups such as the Bighorn Sheep Foundation were looking for a middle ground that would protect bighorns in their best habitat — such as Hells Canyon and the Salmon River area — while accepting domestic sheep in places such as the South Hills near Twin Falls.
Other groups, including Western Watersheds Project, simply wanted sheep ranchers off 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, as U.S. District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill did earlier this year in a Payette National Forest case.
Now top state officials, including the governor, aren’t just stepping up to protect private sheep ranchers. They want a federal agency to keep domestic sheep in bighorn habitat.
Last year I wrote about the U.S. Sheep Experimental Station at Dubois, which 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, the federal sheep station also has been grazing two bands, about 1,000 sheep, in the nearby Lemhi Mountains on BLM-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. The plan designated the Bernice allotment as bighorn habitat.
But state legislators made sure in their bill overseeing the plan that if there were conflicts in these areas, it was the bighorns that must be moved or killed. Fish and Game put radio collars on several bighorns in the south Lemhi range, which showed that bighorns and domestic sheep mixed on the Bernice allotment.
The south Lemhi Range bighorn sheep population — a native population, never extirpated — is one of the largest bighorn populations in Idaho. Despite this, the federal Agricultural Research Service never responded to Fish and Game’s request to do the minimum to protect the bighorns — which was to develop a sheep management plan with Fish and Game.
Facing lawsuits from environmentalists, the BLM decided to kick the experiment station’s domestic 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 federal Ag research agency ignored state Fish and Game, Otter asked Ellis to overrule the BLM 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.
In the big picture, the dispute appears intractable. But in some cases and places, like in the Bernice allotment, there is a chance for both sides to get what they need.
Rocky Barker: 377-6484