Risk assessment Forest Service moving forward with Bighorn sheep actionWritten by Saige Albert
Lander – A Dec. 9 meeting of the Bighorn Sheep/Domestic Sheep Working Group revealed that Region Four of the U.S. Forest Service, the Intermountain Region, will be releasing a draft of their Domestic Sheep/Bighorn Sheep Management Framework risk assessment “fairly soon.”
“Last January, we launched a project called the Domestic Sheep/Bighorn Sheep Management Framework in response to a couple of calls and need for action,” commented Terry Padilla, USFS Region Four rangeland management staff officer.
Developing a framework
The framework development was initiated after the Payette Decision on Bighorn sheep viability was released. Prior to that release, the USFS Payette Plan was reversed, which directed the agency to conduct a viability analysis.
Additionally, the proximity of the public to forests in Region Four has changed, meaning the shift in public values has impacts on managements.
“We saw major population bases rapidly expanding, leading to a shift in public values on a lot of the populations adjacent to the mountain front in the Intermountain Region,” Padilla continued.
Additionally, following a lawsuit, the USFS agreed to revisit grazing decisions on 10 grazing allotments across six national forests and look deeper into Bighorn sheep viability.
“The chief change condition agent identified by the plaintiffs was a re-evaluation of Bighorn sheep,” Padilla noted.
“All of these things converged to create a situation where we had to address Bighorn sheep and do a viability assessment, so Region Four stepped up to assess that,” he said.
On initiating the framework, two key objectives were identified.
The first objective was to identify the intersection between domestic sheep grazing and Bighorn sheep populations across the Intermountain Region, as well as to define habitats and characterize the risk of contact based on the best scientific knowledge available, said Padilla.
“We have done that, and the anchor point was the model used in the Payette viability analysis,” he continued. “There was some variation, but in large part, it was pretty consistent.”
The second objective of the framework was to make recommendations for management based on the risk assessment, “including options to maintain domestic sheep production and grazing on national forest system lands in the Intermountain Region,” said Padilla.
“Then, where decision-making on the two warranted, we are to develop a schedule moving forward to implement the results of that framework,” he said.
Phases of action
Three main phases were identified in development of the framework. The first has been completed.
“Phase one was to gather the data with cooperating agencies, identify the habitat and current state of populations,” Padilla explained. “Then we would create the risk of contact modeling and, finally, use the results of that as a basis to go forward and create a conversation on what to do in management options.”
“We are to the point that we created a draft risk assessment for our forests in the state of Utah and Wyoming,” Padilla continued. “We have briefed the supervisors of the forests and state on that analysis, and we are soon to have the same conversations with the state, congressional leaders and the affected permittees.”
He further noted that USFS is in the process of configuring briefing meetings with stakeholders and affected producers.
After a flood of correspondence was received from a wide range of stakeholders, including 37 Congressmen, governors, producers and interest groups, Padilla emphasized that the opportunity for public involvement is approaching.
“As we move forward, we are going to provide for input and dialogue,” Padilla said, also noting that he is unsure of the formal process that will be carried out. “We will provide for input on the analysis, management options and everything going forward.”
Engagement opportunities for producers are likely to begin very soon for the Wasatch-Cache and Uinta Forests, and Padilla noted that they just completed briefings with members of the Bridger-Teton National Forest staff.
“We will be scheduling conversations with Wyoming producers, state delegations and congressional delegations from the state of Wyoming to move forward,” he said.
Though the USFS will work with stakeholders and has cooperated with state wildlife agencies to this point in developing their risk assessment, Padilla says, “The position of the USFS is that the viability consideration is the imperative of the states and also of the agency, based on the National Forest Management Act.”
Species viability will continue to be a concern for the USFS, he said.
“The states cooperated with us on data sharing and providing us information,” he said, also noting that state wildlife agencies have taken a firm position that their willingness to provide information does not mean they endorse the plan.
Padilla further noted that many options will be available in developing the management framework, mentioning that USFS will consider a wide and varied approach.
“Everything is on the table,” Padilla commented.
“Certainly those vacant allotments will be candidate for stocking from any displaced producer as part of management options,” he said. “As soon as we identify and consider candidates for stocking of domestic sheep, we can schedule reactivating those allotments.”
When asked as to whether or not the USFS will consider Wyoming’s Bighorn sheep plan in its decision making, Padilla was vague, commenting, “We have given it a lot of weight.”
“I caution people about pre-supposing what the risk of contact analysis will say,” he continued. “To date, our analysis – at least in my view – has validated that framework.”
Padilla further noted, “We have also identified some data and information that will cause direction outside of the framework affecting at least one region of landowners, and that will provide for robust conversation.”
He added that the Wyoming plan was a large part of the conversation and believes that the USFS analysis validates the Wyoming plan in many ways.
“I think we have validated the state’s management plan in the framework,” Padilla said. “I think most people will be pleasantly surprised. People will see some data analysis that identifies some considerations above and beyond the Wyoming plan, but I think it is pretty positive.”
Pending litigation related to grazing and Bighorn sheep in the U.S. Forest Service’s Region Four caused concern about the flexibility of their impending management framework for Bighorn and domestic sheep.
“The litigation has a direct influence on our management imperative,” said Terry Padilla, USFS Region Four rangeland management staff officer. “We’ve decided to work through that based on the projection of where we think we need to go.”