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Stockmen, bighorns butt heads in Western showdown

It was the end of a long and bloody road last fall when Mary “Mickey” Thoman rounded up her sheep from pastures along the Green River on the Bridger-Teton National Forest for the last time.

She’s been grazing her sheep there for 40 years and had seen changes — more people, more grizzly bears, and then wolves. She’s lost dozens of sheep to predation and other factors. A grizzly bear killed two dogs and mauled one of her shepherds. She had to corral her sheep every night. The Forest Service was becoming more worried her domestic stock could spread pathogens to a core wild bighorn sheep herd. The pathogens contribute to pneumonia.

Tending to hundreds of sheep on the edge of the Gros Ventre Wilderness took constant vigilance. In recent years, “you had to be there non-stop” she said.

So Thoman, a Kemmerer-area rancher, and her family accepted a buyout from conservation groups, including the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and Wyoming Wild Sheep Foundation. In a transaction that remains confidential, she and her family waived their grazing rights and moved on, looking for other pastures.

Wyoming’s agriculture industry, and state officials, have become increasingly wary about losing grazing acreage on federal lands. The Wyoming Stockgrowers Association has a policy supporting “no net loss of AUMs on all grazing lands in Wyoming.” (An Animal Unit Month is the amount of grass consumed by a cow and calf or by five sheep in one month.)

Gov. Matt Mead’s administration agrees. “We would like to see AUMs maintained,” said Jessica Crowder, one of his policy advisors. State legislators have passed laws to discourage federal curtailment of grazing, measures intended to prevent the diminution of Wyoming’s grazing economy, agriculture culture and ranching heritage.

Earlier this year, months after Thoman’s sheep had left, Bridger-Teton Forest Supervisor Patricia O’Connor declared that the Thoman’s old allotments “will not be restocked with domestic sheep.” Some of the acreage could someday accommodate cattle, she said in a memo. Sorting that out would be “subject to demonstrated need and other Forest priorities.”

Juggling a host of interests, the supervisor protected wild sheep and reduced wildlife conflicts without compromising goals of the agriculture industry and state. Instead of declaring the once-active grazing allotments “closed,” their status remains “vacant.”

Thoman’s case is a study in today’s struggle over grazing on Americans’ national forests in Wyoming, highlighting an increasingly tough road for both conservationists and ranchers. As preservationists strive to protect wildlife and other values they feel are harmed by grazing, they’re finding stiffer resistance from ranchers who have entrenched, historical uses. For ranchers, courts’ rulings, public attitudes, and a federal landlord all burden a tough occupation, and a way of life.

A landlord representing all Americans

Aside from wolves and bears, one of the biggest factors pressing on Mickey Thoman came from federal laws and regulations. “I think the government officials were worse than the grizzly bears and wolves,” she said.

In 2011 the chief of the U.S. Forest Service directed national forests with bighorns to analyze the risks of disease transmission from domestic sheep. Impetus for the analysis is the Forest Service mandate to maintain the viability of wildlife in each national forest.

At the Ogden, Utah regional headquarters for the Bridger-Teton, officials developed a risk model and management strategy to help decide where domestic sheep posed the biggest threat. Coupled with other factors, the strategy helps assess the disease threat to some of Wyoming’s 6,500 wild bighorns. The “Bighorn Sheep/Domestic Sheep – Risk Management Strategy” will “guide our management,” Forest Service documents say.

Under the strategy, the Bridger-Teton has ranked sheep grazing allotments according to their priority for a “management response.” The strategy outlines actions the agency may take to protect the wildlife, like not moving domestic sheep into areas where bighorns are sighted. The strategy seeks to reduce contact between the species and to provide grazing for domestic sheep, O’Connor told ranchers about a year ago. The strategy will be in effect until the forest plan is updated, a process scheduled to start in 2018

The threat is real for bighorns, biologists say. A 1991 disease outbreak in the Whiskey Mountain Herd near Dubois cut the population by a third. In 2010 an infection swept the Jackson herd, cutting it 40 percent to about 450 animals.

In 2011, an outbreak hit Wyoming’s largest herd — the Absaroka herd west of Cody — during a harsh spring. “We probably lost 800 to 1,000 sheep,”  Doug McWhirter, Game and Fish’s Jackson-Pinedale wildlife coordinator told his commission in November. State objectives call for 8,400 wild sheep in Wyoming, 29 percent more than there are today. Managers are considering changing that objective from a hard number to another parameter, like hunter success, in some areas.

The Wyoming working group of wild and domestic sheep interests devised this map prioritizing bighorn sheep habitat across the state. The Bridger-Teton National Forest has not signed the plan, or surrendered any of its authority, but has agreed to cooperate with stakeholders in making decisions about domestic grazing allotments. (Wyoming Game and Fish Department)

But ranchers, who have seen their own stock numbers statewide fall 23 percent in a decade, worry they could be pushed out. Industry advocates supporting the owners of 345,000 domestic sheep in Wyoming warn of the federal efforts to protect wildlife. Chris Wichmann, manager of the natural resources and policy division of the Wyoming Department of Agriculture, briefed the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission in November about the Bridger-Teton National Forest strategy. It will be far-reaching, he said.

Wichmann used a map to highlight where domestic grazing could be affected, telling commissioners “you can see how this basically covers the Bridger-Teton.” He drew attention to National Forest lands in the Wyoming Range between sheep raising hubs in Cokeville, Kemmerer, and Big Piney. Under the Bridger-Teton direction “we basically eliminated sheep grazing from the entire Wyoming Range now,” he said.

Supervisor O’Connor disagrees that her forest is shutting down sheep grazing. “We’re not,” she said in an interview.

With the risk-management strategy, “we can have some long-term assurance both for bighorn sheep and producers,” she said. “We can provide a sustainable level of allotments.” The Forest Service would minimize threats to bighorns “in areas that’s most important for bighorn sheep.”

The buyout

The Thomans saw which way the wind was blowing, Mickey’s daughter, Mary, said. The Bridger-Teton ranked all four upper Green River allotments the Thomans leased — Tosi Creek, Lime Creek, Elk Ridge and Rock Creek — as “high” priority for management response. The family decided to get out. Last fall, when the family rounded up its sheep from the upper Green, W&M Thoman Ranches LLC said goodbye forever to country it had used for four decades.

The buyout was made on a willing-buyer, willing-seller basis, said Steve Kilpatrick, executive director of the Wyoming Wild Sheep Foundation, that participated in the transaction along with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. “We’re one of the options a permittee can consider,” he said. “We’re simply here standing on the sidelines.” A buyout “provides a free-market compensation to do what [ranchers] want to do.”

“We don’t pressure them,” Kilpatrick said of negotiations with ranchers. “We don’t bid. We ask them if they have a willing buyer. If they do, we bow out.”

Others see the situation differently. The Thoman buyout, “I wouldn’t say it was voluntary,” said Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association. “The pressure was such it was the only reasonable decision to make.”

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But buyouts are “a bit of a challenge for groups like ours,” Magagna said. They can lead to allotment closures and loss of federal grazing acreage, contrary to the group’s goals. Stockgrowers, however, also support protection of “all private property rights,” presumably including the right to accept a buyout of a grazing permit in a free market.

“We don’t want to see a loss of grazing AUMs,” Magagna said. Nevertheless, “We certainly do not object to these buyouts.”

The State of Wyoming also resists grazing loss. “We would like to see AUMs maintained,” said policy advisor Crowder. Wyoming’s position of no AUM loss “doesn’t necessarily create conflict,” or meddle in the free market, she said. “When it comes to individual livestock grazing producers and their decisions, we don’t take a position.”

In a statement, Gov. Mead said “…I am sensitive to those who hold allotments and do not want to interfere with the choices they make…”

Wyoming wants allotment decisions scrutinized, Crowder said. “Instead of the Forest Service or the supervisor doing a quick analysis and closing an allotment, our interest has been in a more comprehensive analysis.”

Even though the Thoman buyout doesn’t prohibit cattle from the acreage, removing domestic sheep “has tremendous conservation value,” said Chris Colligan, wildlife program coordinator with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

Forest Service required to protect bighorns

The Thomans’ allotments on the Upper Green were assigned a high management priority because they were so close to bighorn herds important to the Bridger-Teton National Forest and its mission. Under federal law, the agency is required to maintain populations of native wildlife.

“We need to maintain viability,” said John Shivik, wildlife program leader with the Forest Service Region 4 headquarters. “It means that we need to guarantee sheep will persist, there is a reasonable expectation they’re going to remain viable over time. If you have one or two herds that are stable and protected, you can show viability.”

For policy advisor Crowder, “that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to have every species on every acre.” Opinions, however, are as varied as bighorn habitat topography. At Western Watersheds Project, a group opposed to public land grazing, “we would like to see bigger population over a larger area to ensure that they’re viable,” said Melissa Cain, bighorn habitat protection campaign coordinator.

Wyoming has its own bighorn sheep plan, hammered out in 2004 among stock growers, Wyoming Game and Fish Department, wildlife biologists and conservationists. It’s known as the Wyoming State-wide Bighorn/Domestic Sheep Interaction Working Group and Mickey’s daughter, Mary Thoman, was among its early members.

She and others hoped the group would address the disease issue. Now she said she’s disappointed there isn’t a resolution to the question of disease transmission. “The science is still saying yes and no,” she said. “Personally, I don’t think there is an issue.” Disease is being used as a reason to get rid of public land grazing, Thoman said

The Bridger-Teton National Forest has mapped core ranges inhabited by bighorn sheep herds it seeks to protect with its risk-management strategy. The initiative seeks to protect wildlife from diseases spread by domestic stock while still providing grazing for ranchers. (Bridger-Teton National Forest)

In the Working Group plan, some herds are considered “core native herds.” Others live in “cooperative review areas” and still others occupy “non-emphasis areas.” Bighorns in non-emphasis areas will not be protected at the expense of domestic cousins. The Wyoming Range, home to the Darby bighorn sheep herd, is a non-emphasis area in the Wyoming plan. Bighorns were transplanted back to historic habitat by Wyoming Game and Fish in 1981 and 1987

About 60 bighorns live in the Wyoming Range near Big Piney, Cokeville and Kemmerer, a triangle of domestic woolgrowers. In legislative debate in 2015, Rep. Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle) estimated domestic sheep in the area at 82,000. Said Magagna, “those [bighorn] herds exist at their own risk.”

The Darby question

The Wyoming bighorn sheep plan was adopted “by everyone’s agreement,” Magagna said. Bridger-Teton officials “said they would generally be guided,” by the state document, he said.

The Wyoming Legislature codified the plan in 2015. “It is important that our public lands align with that plan,” Crowder said. “Bighorns are managed by the Wyoming Game and Fish on public lands; their habitat is managed by the agency — the Forest Service in this scenario.”

Agriculture Department manager Wichmann said Wyoming presses this point to federal authorities. “We’ve argued this with them several times,” he told Game and Fish commissioners, “they manage the habitat, the state manages the wildlife.”

The Forest Service did not sign the Wyoming Bighorn Sheep plan. It did sign a memorandum of understanding to consult with the state and others about bighorn and domestic sheep. That MOU also states the federal agency surrenders none of its authority. “The MOU documents the cooperative efforts [Wyoming Game and Fish Department] and the Forest Service pledge to undertake to manage bighorn sheep herds and their habitats on National Forest System lands in the State of Wyoming,” the Forest Service said in its risk-management strategy.

For Western Watersheds, Wyoming’s authority over wildlife is not cemented. “The state plan was not developed under [the National Environmental Policy Act]” Cain said. “It’s somewhat questionable whether the Forest Service can rely on a state plan without NEPA.”

Who decides about wildlife on land owned by all Americans? In 2002, a U.S. appellate court weighed in. The federal government has the right to manage its lands through the property clause of Article IV of the U.S. Constitution, the court said. “In our view, the ‘complete power’ that Congress has over public lands necessarily includes the power to regulate and protect the wildlife living there,” the court said.

Wyoming passed its own law that would appear to dissuade the federal government and others from acting against woolgrowers. The bill provides $37,500 to Game and Fish for “removing or relocating the Darby Mountain bighorn sheep herd from the Bridger-Teton National Forest boundaries.” Removal would occur if grazing is reduced by the Forest Service or even a court ruling.

The Bridger-Teton’s Forest plan says “on Darby Mountain and Fish Creek in the Big Piney Ranger District where bighorn sheep have been reintroduced, domestic sheep will not be restocked.” The more recent risk-management strategy, which is updated as needed, says “the Forest Service does not anticipate addressing risks that domestic sheep may represent to this herd by means that would involve adverse permit actions.” Forest Service officials have not determined whether the plan’s direction applies to where bighorns were transplanted to their former range, or to all country they now occupy in the Wyoming Range.

Forest Service identifies potential conflict areas

The Forest Service has applied its risk-management strategy to five herds on the Bridger-Teton and Caribou-Targhee national forests in Wyoming. The strategy’s priorities for management response — high, moderately high, medium or low — is based on a risk-of-contact model and other factors. The “ROC” model applies a number to most sheep grazing allotments, indicating the potential for a bighorn to step onto a domestic allotment.

In some instances, grazing allotments overlap bighorn habitat. For other allotments, a bighorn may have the potential to wander to it several times a decade.

The risk-or-contact is only one factor to be used in judging the danger posed by domestic grazing, said Kerry Murphy, wildlife biologist with the Bridger-Teton. Others, including whether there’s an interstate highway or some other barrier to sheep movement, also are considered, he said. “It’s a back-and-forth and a long process,” he said of decisions made involving permittees and state officials.

Shivick called the risk-of-contact model “an excellent first step.” It cannot be used without other biological understanding, “and, frankly, a little bit of common sense,” he said. “It doesn’t do as much as some people believe. It doesn’t model disease transmission.”

The Bridger-Teton has no occupied domestic sheep allotments that are a high priority for management action under the strategy. Nine allotments are a “moderately high” priority, officials said. A map of those — all located in Lincoln County south of the Snake River Canyon — is being prepared for publication. On the Caribou-Targhee National Forest, several active allotments may raise red flags for their potential to impact Bridger-Teton bighorns and a population in Grand Teton National Park.

If woolgrowers see a threat from the risk-of contact model and risk-management strategy, bighorn advocates also see problems. Game and Fish bifurcates the Jackson bighorn herd into north and south halves, for example. Were the two combined, as some believe they should be, that would lead to a more accurate estimate of risk in favor of bighorn protection, bighorn advocate Kilpatrick said. Ongoing research seeks to resolve the north/south divide.

What’s so special about wild bighorns?

For all the brouhaha over them, bighorn sheep attract deserved attention. “Bighorn sheep are an iconic species of the West,” said Western Watershed’s Cain. “They’ve been here since time immemorial. They have inherent value. Wildlife watching is a very profitable enterprise. It is a more secure revenue source over the long term — ranching tends to fluctuate.”

Yet bighorns remain at less than 10 percent of their historic numbers and many populations are separated, isolated. “Even if we didn’t have any die-offs, that’s still a really bad situation,” she said.

For McWhirter, bighorns are indicators of magical geography. “They always require topographical complexity in some way, shape or form,” he said. “I like to be in places sheep like to be. There’s a lot of great places in the western U.S. and Canada that if there aren’t bighorns that live there, it’s a little less interesting to me.”

Gov. Mead sees a close link between federal grazing allotments — he has a forest lease — and open space on private land. “For agriculture to do well, allotment availability is key,” he said in a statement. “For every allotment closed we should ask the question – what is the effect on the ranching industry, particularly the fee [private] ground associated with the lease? Will it be divided and sold?”

Bridger-Teton National Forest biologist Kerry Murphy, right, helps release a bighorn ewe last month during a capture operation that seeks information on herd health. Researchers working with Wyoming Game and Fish Department keep tabs on populations across the state (Josh Metten/@joshmettenphoto)

“So many organizations, from The Nature Conservancy to the Wyoming Stock Growers Land Trust, see the value of ranching — not only for food, but for the open space and habitat it provides to our wonderful wildlife,” he said. “As we move forward everyone should take the broadest view [of] the impact of an allotment closed — limiting livestock grazing and maybe shutting down ranching.  What does that mean for wildlife tourism and viewsheds?”

But open space, according to Western Watersheds, is a county zoning issue. Ranching and federal land grazing will not ensure the landscape remains open, Cain said.

What will happen to the Thomans and their domestic herd now that they have left the upper Green? “We’re still searching,” Mary Thoman said of the quest for grass. We thought we had everything arranged,” including leases on federal Bureau of Land Management property, which she said are being reviewed for potential impacts to sage grouse. The family also is trying to get onto “reserve” Forest Service allotments, but those have restrictions limiting their use.

Without new country to graze, “We may have to sell some sheep,” she said. “So life is not easy,”

McWhirter and others hope that Wyoming’s bighorn/domestic sheep working group, which devised the Wyoming plan, will sort things out at the table, and not in a courtroom. “We really have met for a long time and gone through some pretty touchy issues and stuck together,” he said. “It’s one of the most complicated issues in wildlife management and we’re trying to do it together.”

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About the Author

angus@wyofile.com |

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) 690-5586. Follow Angus on Twitter at @AngusThuermer

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2 Responses to Stockmen, bighorns butt heads in Western showdown

  1. Marylee White April 5, 2017 at 9:16 am #

    Wow! Thanks, Angus for illuminating this conundrum for me and other readers. Now can you tell me how to distill this complexity into two sentences that are different that what we always hear, “The federal government sucks. Federal overreach has gotten out of control.”

    Wilson, Wyoming

  2. Dewey Vanderhoff April 4, 2017 at 8:42 am #

    It was a tragic day for the territory of Wyoming when the first alien exotic domestic Sheep were trailed in and pastured above 4,500 feet elevation here. The hairy land maggots weren’t exactly beneficial for the lower country, either.
    The silver lining to the massive influx of sheep in the later 1800’s was the degradation caused by sheep to the land was so massive and widespread that it actually lead to the creation of the National Forest system to thwart those impacts. The greatest impetus for reining in the abuses of the Sheep Barons came on the Greybull River west of Meeteetse when rancher A.A. Anderson used his political clout to have the Yellowstone Timberland Reserve signed into law by President Harrison in 1891. By 1890 most of the big game in Wyoming had been wiped out, either because of rampant market hunting or being displaced on the land by cattle and sheep – mainly the latter. What were later to be called National Forests were created to restore game herds and damaged habitat as much as anything, which meant largely throwing the sheepmen off the high country.

    Today we still have impacts from overgrazing by sheep in high elevation Wyoming. Granted, the state has a mere 350,000 woolies these days, down from the apex of 4 million a century ago and 2 million when the 1964 Wilderness Act was signed in 1964. Even though Wyoming presently has maybe ten percent of the sheep grazing it once had, and high percentage of those sheep are trailed into the higher elevations in summer.

    To my mind, sheep grazing on National Forest lands in Wyoming (and most higher elevation BLM and State lands) is not Multiple Use, it is Serial Abuse. And there is not greater impact than where domestic sheep and native wild Bighorn sheep are in proximity to one another, even for just a few months of the year.

    The so-called Wyoming Sheep Plan is no friend to Wyoming’s wild herds of Bighorns, which number maybe 7,500 total. Domestic sheep outnumber wild sheep 50 to 1 in Wyoming. Anyone who tells you the domestic sheep industry is vital to Wyoming and is entitled to “traditional” high country allotments of public graze is lying thru their teeth. Every domestic sheep in Wyoming could disappear tomorrow and the world markets would never miss them. There’s a reason why Wyoming’s wool and mutton herds number only ten percent of their former population: the market forces. Wool and mutton are produced and sold globally and have been for 8,000 years. It does not make much sense to keep propping up the Wyoming Woolgrowers. Like every other aspect of agriculture in Wyoming, once you try to get a crop of ANYTHING above 4400 feet elevatio , the business model goes into the negative dollar range, requiring subsidies or special interest favoritism. Sheepers have always gotten more from the public lands than they ever put back, and it is wild sheep who have paid the highest price, followed by all other wild ungulates. never mind the damage to watersheds and vegetative cover caused by the land maggots.

    The Forest Service along with Wyo Game and Fish , USF&WS and BLM have a legal mandate to foster wild sheep , ungulates, and the land itself. It is well past the time that the State of Wyoming and it’s legislature tell the Woolgrowers to keep their sheep out of the mountains. There’s plenty of room for the Merinos and Hampshires down lower. Fewer wolves, too…

    Cody, Wyoming

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