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Guest Opinions

Wyo Wool Growers Association Tackles Sheep Industry Issues

Written by Amy Hendrickson

By Amy Hendrickson, Wyoming Wool Growers Association Executive Director

On Sept. 15, the Wyoming Wool Growers Association (WWGA) will hold its 87th Annual Wyoming State Ram Sale in Douglas. This annual event is a cornerstone of the WWGA’s efforts to promote Wyoming’s robust sheep industry. This year’s Consignors and Buyers Appreciation Dinner will feature a presentation on the Ram Sire Tests conducted in cooperation with and through the University of Wyoming.

Each year WWGA conducts two ram sire tests. The first runs from June to August, and the second begins in late September and runs thru mid-March of the following year. Both Ram Sire Tests are conducted at the University of Wyoming. The presentation by Doug Zalesky and Kalli Koepke will explain the data collected and how to read and gain information from the indexes published from it.

The sheep industry in Wyoming is facing some serious challenges at a time when there is a resurgent interest in wool and lamb. As a naturally sustainable product, wool is increasingly favored by apparel manufacturers because of its natural ability to insulate the body and readily wick away moisture. As a quality protein, high in nutrition, interest in lamb as a protein alternative is growing. This is good news for the industry.

Unfortunately, federal policies governing land use and labor threaten the future of Wyoming’s producers. The U.S. Forest Service continues to press forward with its intent to eliminate sheep grazing allotments in favor of Bighorn sheep based on shaky science and analysis. Despite the growing body of science that indicates the cause of pneumonia in Bighorns, like in any species, is multi-factorial and likely caused by numerous bacterial agents, of which Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae is only one, the Forest Service marches forward with its Bighorn Framework based on the misguided model that assumes the mere presence of domestic sheep grazing is the source of Bighorn die-offs.

Not to be left out, the Bureau of Land Management is now incorporating Forest Service-type grazing restrictions in its Land Use Planning Guidelines for domestic sheep. Every livestock producer, whether raising sheep or cattle, should be concerned as the finger pointing increasingly includes other domestic livestock as responsible for disease in wildlife.

In addition to the pressures of federal land management agencies, recent proposals by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) threaten the viability of a large percentage of Wyoming’s sheep industry. According to a University of Wyoming analysis, DOL’s proposed H-2A program changes would reduce the profitability of a range sheep operation employing two H-2A herders to a point that continued operation would be impossible, concluding that such an operation would be “able to pay both total operating and total ownership cost only eight percent of the time.” The impact of these proposed changes directly affects a substantial portion of Wyoming’s sheep industry, and the loss of these large sheep operations will impact smaller operations that already have great difficulty in finding shearers and veterinarians, markets for their products and transportation for their animals destined to those market. Related businesses, like supply stores, equipment dealerships and grocery stores, will also feel the impact.

Nonetheless, our industry is strong and is battling hard to save a way of life. The tireless efforts of many producers to keep our concerns before policymakers ensure our message is being heard. We are blessed with a congressional delegation that understands and cares about these issues and works hard to educate others about them. The recent congressional field hearing in Evanston held by Representative Cynthia Lummis is an example. Our state legislators are also interested and make a point to educate themselves on our industry, as evidenced by the attendance of State Senators Stan Cooper and Dave Kinskey at the WWGA Midyear Meeting. Our message is being heard.

The 87th annual WWGA State Ram Sale is evidence of the resiliency of our industry. With a history of quality rams, like the top-selling Rambouillet ram in 2014 that came from the Wyoming State Ram Sale, we have more than 300 rams consigned this year and buyers coming from as far away as Kansas City, Mo. WWGA members have reason to be proud of their organization and their industry. Keep fighting!