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Guest Opinions

Bullish about sheep

Written by Gov. Matt Mead

I have often made the analogy that agriculture in Wyoming could be compared to the best supporting character in a blockbuster movie. Other industries like energy and tourism often get top billing, but without agriculture there would not be the accessible land for wind farms, drilling rigs and coal mines nor would there be the ranches, traditions and wide open spaces that draw so many visitors to Wyoming. In other words we would not have the box office success we do without the role agriculture plays in our state.

A similar analogy could be made for sheep, which do not always receive the attention that beef gets. Yet sheep and wool have tremendous value and their producers do a lot for Wyoming, often out of the spotlight.  We would not have the success we do without the role sheep producers play in our state.  And so our history shows.

Since statehood, sheep ranchers have been an integral part of Wyoming – our agriculture, politics and culture. At the height of sheep production in Wyoming there were nearly six million head. This was back in the 1930’s. Now there are fewer than half a million. By comparison, in 2007, there were 1.3 million head of cattle in Wyoming.

Despite the drop in sheep numbers, Wyoming’s lamb and wool industry continues to be among the best in the nation. Wyoming’s lamb and wool are recognized, not only nationally but internationally, as some of the best in quality. Wyoming is the number two lamb producing state; we are the number two wool producing state, and we are the number one range sheep state in the country. The production of two important commodities, food and fiber, are positive for our economy, and sheep for the table is good for our nation’s food security too. Thanks to the hard work, dedication and perseverance of those engaged in the industry today, the sheep business remains a vital and strong component of Wyoming’s list of natural resource industries.

Sheep owners, herders and shearers face numerous challenges. These challenges include the significant effects of predation on a herd, the ever-rising weight on U.S. markets of cheap foreign imports and weather.  While spring storms may bring needed moisture, they can also be devastating and claim the lives of many newborn lambs. Wyoming’s sheep producers have become adept at tackling adversity and successfully seeing their way through it.

Sheep producers do more for Wyoming than just provide jobs, revenue, food and wool. There are several other less tangible or obvious, yet equally important, benefits which our State enjoys because of its strong sheep industry. Well-managed grazing by sheep, as well as goats, is now recognized and used as a holistic tool to restore and rehabilitate degraded or otherwise compromised sagebrush habitats.  Wyoming continues to face the potential that sage grouse could be added to the Endangered Species list.  If listing were to occur, the effects on our overall economy and many industries other than agriculture would be quite harmful. The well-timed use of sheep and goat grazing is important to sage grouse, and this is one more tool available to us as we work to protect and enhance sage grouse habitat and population and keep the bird off the list.  Another benefit of grazing by sheep and other livestock is its documented importance as a tool to reduce fire loads from vegetation – a wildfire preventative measure.

I am bullish about our sheep industry. Since taking office, I have engaged in the long fight to return control of wolves to the State of Wyoming. It has been challenging, but after hearing from many people in Wyoming, notably among them sheep producers in western Wyoming, I started pursuing a workable compromise with the Department of the Interior. The plan we have reached agreement on, if approved by the Legislature, would create a new flex area. This is an area where wolves would be classified as trophy game part of the winter and predators the rest of the year. As they have for nearly two decades since wolves were dropped back in Wyoming, sheep producers will feel the impact from this change most because the flex area runs through several sheep producers’ private land. Still, it is with the cooperation of these producers and many others like them that I am optimistic about the possibility of Wyoming managing wolves in the next year. And, all things considered, state management is best for everyone. We owe these producers our thanks and then some.

I want those who produce wool and lamb to know that they have an ally in Cheyenne. I want readers to know that I have taken note of the challenges sheep producers face and the contributions they make to Wyoming. These men and women and their families, working hard year in and year out, make Wyoming special – a place we are all so proud to call home.

By Governor Matt Mead