Bighorn sheep can catch deadly pneumonia from domestic sheep, causing wildlife managers to seek ways to separate the two species. The Forest Service said Friday it would not curtail domestic sheep grazing in the Wyoming Range on account of such conflicts. (National Park Service/Ron Shade)

The U.S. Forest Service said Friday it won’t push domestic sheep off public land in the Wyoming Range due to worries that wild bighorn sheep could catch diseases from them.

Regional Forester Nora Rasure said wild bighorns in the Darby Herd are a “non-emphasis” population, a designation that reduces the need to separate them from disease-carrying domestic stock. Rasure’s statements in a Feb. 20 letter to Gov. Matt Mead brought differing interpretations about the need for two bills that seek to protect stockmen from eviction from their grazing allotments because of nearby bighorns.

Rasure’s letter obviates the need for one of the bills and reduces the importance of the second, Wyoming Wildlife Federation director Steve Kilpatrick said. “We certainly don’t see the need for Senate File 133 (Bighorn sheep relocation) now that the Forest Service has put their intentions in writing,” he said in an email.

Senate File 133 calls for the removal of the Darby Herd of wild bighorns from the Bridger-Teton National Forest if domestic grazing is curtailed. A second bill also is unnecessary, Kilpatrick said.

But the newly stated Forest Service position doesn’t completely protect stockmen and women, Wyoming Stock Growers Association executive vice president Jim Magagna said. Abandoning the bills would leave stock growers vulnerable to the loss of grazing through lawsuits.

Stock growers still want bills passed

“I certainly wouldn’t agree,” Magagna said of Kilpatrick’s call to reject the legislation. Nevertheless, he called Rasure’s letter “good news.” He had not seen the correspondence but reacted to a description of the letter that WyoFile provided during a telephone interview.

At issue are the domestic and wild sheep herds and the potential for wild sheep to catch deadly diseases — principally pneumonia — from domestic stock grazed on public land. Conflicts between the two species are supposed to be worked out according to a plan completed by the “State-wide Bighorn/Domestic sheep Interaction Working Group” in 2004.

Senate File 133 — Bighorn sheep relocation would provide $37,500 to Wyoming Game and Fish Department “for the purpose of removing or relocating the Darby Mountain big horn sheep herd from the Bridger-Teton National Forest boundaries as a result of any federal judicial or agency action requiring the elimination or suspension of any domestic sheep grazing in the Wyoming range of the Bridger-Teton National Forest.” Senate File 134 – Bighorn sheep plan — codifies that Wyoming’s 2004 sheep plan will govern conflicts.

Rasure’s letter says her agency isn’t going to curtail grazing on the Bridger-Teton National Forest because of conflicts with the Darby Herd, leaving potential lawsuits as the remaining threat to domestic grazing.

“We have thoroughly reviewed the Plan and believe it represents an important collaborative effort that serves as a valuable framework to meet our mutual resource management objectives,” Rasure wrote Mead. “The Plan identifies the Darby herd as a ‘non-emphasis’ herd and we do not have any current desire to address risks that domestic sheep may represent to that herd.”

Several other sheep herds in the Bridger-Teton — the Targhee, Jackson and Whiskey herds — are “core native herds” that need to be protected from domestic sheep, Rasure said. As a “non-emphasis” herd in the Wyoming 2004 plan, the Darby population is less important.

Although the 2004 plan has been operating for a decade, recent developments in Idaho have made sheepherders nervous, Magagna said. A lawsuit there led the Payette National Forest to ban domestic sheep grazing on large portions of the federal property to protect native bighorns.

Rasure’s letter recognizing Wyoming’s 2004 sheep plan is important but is not iron-clad protection for stock growers, Magagna said.

“I would not rule out that there could be future litigation that could change that,” he said of Rasure’s assurances to stock growers. “The potential for litigation remains.”

Wyoming’s 2004 plan operates just fine without being codified by SF 134 and without the relocation bill, Kilpatrick said. The relocation bill was amended to put wild sheep removal in the context of the 2004 Wyoming plan. That’s another reason Kilpatrick said it is unnecessary.

State sheep plan seeks room for both species

Wyoming’s 2004 plan seeks room for both species. “It is the goal of the Wyoming Bighorn/Domestic Sheep Interaction Working Group to maintain healthy bighorn sheep populations while sustaining an economically viable domestic sheep industry in Wyoming,” the plan says. It also shuns political involvement.

“Existing and/or potential conflicts between domestic and both core native and transplanted bighorn sheep should not be used as surrogate issues to force or effect resource management decisions,” the plan says. “[T]he retirement, reduction, or removal of grazing allotments and management changes should be only on a willing permittee basis, not under a sense of urgency or duress.”

The Senate has passed both bills and the House referred the bighorn sheep relocation bill to its appropriations committee. The House scheduled general file consideration Tuesday afternoon for SF 134, the bill to codify the 2004 Wyoming plan.

Rasure’s letter should quell fears among sheepherders, Kilpatrick said.

“We thank the Forest Service for putting (in) writing that they will not be taking action against domestic sheep producers in the Darby Mountain bighorn sheep herd area,” he said in an email. “We hope this relieves tensions, dispels rumors and allows the interactive working group to get on with the good work they have been doing over the past 15 years. We also hope it reduces the desire for political intervention.”

Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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