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Guest Opinions

Sheep Plan Works for Wyoming

Written by Scott Talbott

By Scott Talbott, Director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department

On a weekend early this spring, a group of volunteers and wildlife managers from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) opened up the doors on three horse trailers and released 25 Bighorn sheep. The sheep sprinted off and were soon deep in the Seminoe Mountains. The animals are augmenting the established herd in south central Wyoming. WGFD captured these sheep near the Montana border from the Devils Canyon herd the day before. 

This transplant shows that we are having success in managing wild sheep, and that was all made possible because of a Wyoming-style handshake deal made over 10 years ago. In 2000, Senator Craig Thomas and Governor Jim Geringer convened a diverse group – domestic sheep producers, county officials, conservation groups, agricultural groups, federal and state land and wildlife management agencies. All of these interests came together and agreed on a goal: maintain healthy Bighorn sheep populations while sustaining an economically viable domestic sheep industry in Wyoming. 

This is the kind of deal that makes Wyoming a unique place. We care deeply about wildlife, but we know people need jobs so we have to have a strong economy. To support both wildlife and the economy, we need plans that provide balance. WGFD has often been a part of these deals and is proud to partner with those in sheep production and ranching to achieve them. I believe these efforts are the hallmark of Wyoming. 

But, none of it has been easy. Despite their strength and size, Bighorn sheep are a sensitive lot. They are particularly susceptible to diseases. The Bighorn/Domestic Sheep Working Group recognized this fact and also that there is a risk of disease exchange between Bighorn and domestic sheep. 

We have also seen that domestic sheep production is under threat. The economics of the industry are hard enough, but in the West some groups have targeted grazing on public lands and opposed sheep producers. 

Still we found a way in Wyoming. Our plan has been in place for over a decade now. What we established was a series of core areas for Bighorn sheep. This encapsulated habitats for over 85 percent of the state’s Bighorn sheep. There are approximately 6,000 sheep living in Wyoming now. 

Domestic sheep production has our support as well. We want to support the industry and feel that the lack of conflict in Wyoming – especially during this period when other states have had conflict – shows the best path forward. 

When we have a plan like this, it truly is in the best interest of all parties involved. No matter your viewpoint, if all sides advocate for a common goal, we see better results. At the heart of this is a commitment from WGFD, agriculture and other groups involved to talk. When there are concerns we have a forum to discuss them and find solutions. Now, 14 years after this group first met, we are still talking. That’s a great achievement, and it is embodied in events like the transplant of Bighorn sheep that took place this spring. 

The Devils Canyon Bighorn sheep herd population is above objective, and this herd has grown over the last few decades. WGFD has always had the goal of using animals from this herd to augment other herds in Wyoming. So, in March we advanced a goal from the Working Group’s Plan, which was to enhance the numbers, health and distribution of Bighorn sheep. 

At the same time, removing the Bighorn sheep from Devils Canyon also reduces the likelihood that wild sheep will end up mingling with domestic sheep. This transplant keeps the population close to objective, and that means we are less likely to have a conflict with domestic sheep producers. 

While we have this level of success with management, recent actions by the U.S. Forest Service related to grazing led us to strengthen the Wyoming Plan. In 2014, the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission and Wyoming Board of Agriculture formally adopted the plan. Then during this year’s legislative session the Working Group’s Plan for Bighorn/Domestic Sheep was put into state law. This comes almost exactly 10 years after the diverse groups that forged the plan put it into place with our word and our handshake. 

On behalf of WGFD, I want to thank all those involved in creating this plan and even more importantly thanks to those who put into action. This plan shows what can be done when we come together and seek common ground. It is something that those in Wyoming’s agriculture community have done throughout our history, and hunters and all of the people who appreciate wildlife enjoy the benefits.