Below the peaks of the Madison Range, south of Ennis, a herd of more than a dozen bighorn sheep are grazing among snow-covered sagebrush. It’s around freezing.
The animals, with their iconic curled horns, look healthy, but Garrett Long, with the Wild Sheep Foundation, tells me that restoring the animal’s population in the West is a big challenge.
“These animals are so susceptible to pathogens from domestic sheep that you’re in constant competition with keeping them alive and away from domestic sheep and other infected wild sheep.”
Long says that can make it hard to find places to establish new wild sheep herds.
In recent years it’s also led to court battles between environmental groups and livestock producers arguing over which animals do and don’t belong on public lands.
Long says this fighting is limiting the recovery effort of bighorns.
“I think to get to the next level - absolutely need more collaboration between wild sheep and domestic sheep advocates.”
Long says, like some other wildlife native to the region, bighorn sheep are struggling to recover since their historic populations were cut from overhunting, urban growth and disease.
He tells me it’s estimated that there were more than a million bighorns in the West, but their numbers are now around 80,000 and further recovery efforts are running into some hurdles that the general public may be able to help wild sheep advocacy groups like his overcome.
“Get it to the point where the market demands responsible domestic sheep production. And that they get to market the work that they're willing to do with us.”
This recent move proposes turning some of the struggling work of collaborative conservation into an economic partnership.
The idea is to get the public to care enough about bighorn sheep conservation that they’ll prefer to buy clothing or food from domestic producers who harvest wool or lamb in a way that benefits wild sheep conservation. Kind of like how some sleeping bags or puffy jackets come with a sticker that assures the buyer that the product was made with ethically sourced down.
“Beyond just a pat on the back and knowing you're doing the right thing. Economically, it’s worth working with the Wild Sheep Foundation and wild sheep advocates to bring wild sheep conservation to the next level.”
However domestic sheep producers are wary.
“Our participation in the bighorn sheep issue is really a defensive one,” says Jim Brown, an attorney and the public affairs director for the Montana Wool Growers Association.
Brown says the wool growers tend to get along well some private and public organizations when discussing how to reintroduce bighorns. But he says there are other groups that threaten to take livestock producers to court to get their animals off of federal public lands.
“Where the incentives have been provided is by some of these environmental groups who have tried to come in and buy out the federal allotments just to get the domestic sheep removed off. And producers in Montana don't want to do that because they want to ranch.”
The Gallatin Wildlife Association is one of those groups. In 2015 is started it’s legal attempts to block domestic sheep grazing over environmental concerns in the Gravelly Range. The Association’s website says a variety of species, including bighorn sheep, are, “adversely impacted by this government domestic sheep grazing program.”
“There is a trend where lawsuits have been filed throughout the West," Brown says. "The assertion is made that because there are domestic sheep grazing allotments that are proximate to the newly re-introduced bighorn sheep herds that therefore domestic sheep pose a disease transmission risk for the bighorn herds, and therefore the domestic sheep allotments should be retired.”
Brown says woolgrowers have worked with the Wild Sheep Foundation and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to find areas in the state where bighorns could be reintroduced with minimal risk of contact with domestic sheep, that could get them sick. And he says public land managers allow shepherds to haze wild sheep away from their flocks. Brown says the Wool Growers Association supports having more bighorn sheep on the landscape.
The western half of the state is best for that, Brown says, because there is little domestic sheep production left after years of urbanization.
Robert Garrott, an ecology professor at Montana State University who researches wild sheep, says there’s definitely the potential to have both more bighorn sheep in Montana, and a viable domestic sheep industry. But for that to happen there has to be more acceptance of risk, on all sides.
Garrott joined Montana Wild Sheep Foundation last week in their push for media attention, aimed at garnering public support for the bighorn research and conservation work.
“It’s just going to take collaboration and every now and then we’re going to have to experiment a little bit and maybe take some risks," says Garrott. "Sometimes we're going to win and sometimes we aren't. But we’ll learn from that and with that maybe we can do a little bit better than we've been able to do in the last 80 to 100 years.”
Risk, in this case, is that wildlife managers could look bad if they try to establish a new herd of bighorns, but they end up catching a disease and die, resulting in a lot of time and money going into a failed project.
On the other side, there’s the risk domestic sheep producers have of getting sued if their sheep are blamed for passing a disease on to bighorns, or the risk of being told their flocks must leave the public land they graze on to make way for bighorns.
Wild sheep populations are no longer in the poor shape they were in decades ago, but their advocates say there’s a lot of room to improve. However, collaborative efforts to push that work forward has run into a snag, caught on dueling interests in use for public land.