Bighorn Sheep Working Group hears about West-wide efforts
Casper – Since its inception in 2000, the Wyoming Statewide Domestic Sheep/Bighorn Sheep Interaction Working Group continues to work cooperatively with all stakeholders to maintain healthy Bighorn sheep populations while sustaining a viable domestic sheep industry in Wyoming.
“This group was convened in 2000 by Governor Jim Geringer and Senator Craig Thomas,” said Wyoming Game and Fish Department Biologist Doug McWhirter. “It has been a long haul, but we have developed a plan and prescribed some management responses as a result.”
The Working Group met on April 25 to discuss ongoing efforts, as well as to open questions and answers for future work by the group.
Working group plan
Beginning in 2000, the group developed a plan over the course of four years to accomplish their goals, which included identifying key Bighorn sheep herds in Wyoming and prioritizing those herds.
“What is important coming out of the plan are the terms of the agreement,” McWhirter emphasized. “We prioritized first. We also came to an agreement on an approach and methods.”
The terms of the agreement indicate priority to protect the domestic sheep industry in Wyoming, such that changes should not be made to grazing allotments without agreement or a sense of urgency or duress.
They aimed toward no net loss of domestic sheep industry animal unit months (AUMs) on allotments in Wyoming, as well.
The roles and goals of the plan have been supported through action over many years, and actions such as movement of allotments, voluntary waivers and transplants of sheep, among other actions, have fostered both the viability of domestic and Bighorn sheep.
In the U.S. Forest Service’s Region Four, the Intermountain Region, Chris Iverson emphasized that they are working to be transparent in their efforts to dispel myths and accomplish their goals.
“We are making an effort to share everything we are doing and to be transparent,” Iverson commented.
Within the Intermountain Region, Iverson noted that a Bighorn Sheep Management Framework is being developed and has been in discussion for nearly a year.
“We were very conscious that we needed a sound and well-designed framework,” he said.
However, national forests across the country are bound by the National Forest Management Act (NFMA) to provide for diverse wildlife communities.
“Our statutory and regulatory requirements include maintaining viable populations of desirable species,” Iverson explained.
With a regional approach in mind, Iverson noted that they have begun to establish a strategy that protects both Bighorn sheep and domestic sheep in the region.
“We took a regional approach because we wanted to put one team of our best experts together to ensure a consistent process,” he said. “We wanted a measure of efficiency to do the process once with the best team we could put together.”
At the same time, an allotment-by-allotment approach didn’t make sense in terms of scale.
“We wanted to do this on an appropriate scale,” Iverson explained. “We don’t have to maintain viable populations in every project area. Our requirement by the NFMA is to maintain viable populations within the area of the national forest.”
“This has been a complex issue, but the goal of our framework is very similar to the goals of Wyoming’s working group,” he adds. “We want to provide opportunities for sustainable domestic sheep grazing while maintaining viable Bighorn sheep populations and our responsibility under NFMA.”
Engagement and management
Iverson further noted that the Region Four plan aims to engage with Bighorn sheep experts across state lines.
“If we can get information from the state of Wyoming, we are encouraged to seek the state expert in interpreting data,” he said. “The most important part of this whole process is to validate range allotment status.”
The region is also working to assess a wide array of management options to accomplish goals.
“We have taken a good faith effort in looking at management options,” Iverson continued. “We don’t have to make immediate decisions, so we can take a conscious effort to look at where there are opportunities.”
In U.S. Forest Service Region Two, the Rocky Mountain Region, Brian Ferebee noted that they have the same directive and responsibilities as Region Four, and he said, “We deal with issues in the forest plan revision process.”
While Region Four’s national forest land use plans aren’t due to be started for between five and 15 years, Ferebee noted that several plan revisions are currently in progress in Region Two, including the Shoshone National Forest plan.
“We’ve dealt with litigation on the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest, and we are still in litigation there,” he commented. “We are anxious to get that decision.”
In their core native herds of Bighorn sheep, Ferebee said their approach has been to look at meeting viability requirements within the forests.
“This doesn’t mean we don’t have allotment issues, but that is where management issues come into play,” he added. “We are looking at maintaining separation and using management options.”
“If it wasn’t for the work that we have done and some of the management actions that have taken place, we might be in a different place in this region, commented Ferebee. “We feel really good about the work this working group has done that we have been able to take advantage of.”