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2024 Montana Primary elections

Bighorns And Domestic Sheep Are Incompatible, That Worries Sheep Producers

Josh Burnham (CC-BY-2.0)

Regional sheep producers are concerned that fears about their herds transmitting disease to wild bighorn sheep might jeopardize their livelihood.

Last spring, the Forest Service banned domestic sheep grazing on about 70 percent of the Payette National Forest in West Central Idaho to prevent domestic sheep from infecting bighorns.

"We feel it's just a way for environmental groups to try to try and remove livestock from public grounds."

That’s Greg Wichman, president of  Montana Wool Growers Association. Wichman says the Forest Service’s  move last year to curtail sheep grazing was devastating to Idaho producers.

“It put some ranchers out of business. Literally, once they lost those allotments, it put them out of business."

He says Idaho sheep producers are appealing the ruling, but the Forest Service is also developing a plan to consider whether domestic sheep in Wyoming and other states threaten bighorns. Wyoming lawmakers and producers are pushing back and bracing for a fight. One state lawmaker is pushing a bill to codify in Wyoming law a plan that state agencies have used for the past ten years to resolve possible conflicts between wild and domestic sheep.

Wichman says scientists  at Washington State University are conducting research that may eventually prove the Forest Service in Idaho is acting too hastily.

"As they work through that, it's becoming quite evident that the bighorns naturally carry the pathogens that cause these disease outbreaks and die-offs, it's just a matter of stress that brings them out."

Wichman won't say domestic sheep never transmit disease to wild populations, but notes that bighorn die-offs have occurred hundreds of miles away from any domestic sheep.

Pneumonia has killed significant numbers of Montana bighorn. Most recently, the disease has sickened a wild herd near Gardiner, north of Yellowstone National Park.

Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks spokesman Ron Aasheim:

"We've been real diligent at working with producers , the Woolgrowers Association, sheep hunters (Montana Wild Sheep Foundation) and our staff to hopefully minimize the potential problem, but it's a real one, Ed. No question."

Assheim says his agency closely monitors wild sheep.

"In the case of individual (wild) sheep, if they move into an area with domestic sheep we'll take those out just so they don't return to that wild population. Otherwise, what we do, again, is try to cooperate. We also don't reintroduce sheep in Montana. We have a policy within a certain distance of domestic sheep when we know there are allotments."

Assheim says he's not aware of any effort to curtail domestic sheep grazing in Montana.

Greg Wichman points out his organization, the Montana Woolgrowers Association isn't anti-bighorn sheep. Members just don't want to see herds get too close to domestic herds and put people out of business.

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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