USFS releases risk assessment at Bighorn sheep meetingWritten by Saige Albert
Lander – The Dec. 8 meeting of the Bighorn Sheep Domestic Sheep Interaction Working Group heard a presentation on the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Region Four’s Risk of Contact Assessment, a document that has been highly anticipated by the sheep industry.
“The crux of the meeting was Region Four’s presentation on their risk of contact assessment,” said Wyoming Department of Agriculture (WDA) Director Doug Miyamoto. “This is something we have been waiting on for a long time.”
Risk of contact
The USFS Risk of Contact Assessment for Region Four utilized observational and radio-collar data to analyze how Bighorn sheep move across the landscape as compared to domestic sheep allotments. The Risk of Contact Assessment provides coefficients describing the frequency of Bighorn sheep on domestic sheep allotments.
“It gives us an indication graphically about what USFS is concerned about, which is helpful,” said Miyamoto.
However, WDA Natural Resources Division Manager Chris Wichmann commented, “This is just a starting point. It doesn’t include anything about mitigation of risks or other variables that play into the actual risk of transmission.”
Wyoming Game and Fish Department Wildlife Biologist Doug McWhirter echoed Wichmann’s point.
“The Risk of Contact Assessment is just the first step,” McWhirter said. “There are factors in each allotment that aren’t captured by these numbers, so identifying those will be next.”
Developing the Risk of Contact Assessment was a big undertaking for USFS, and McWhirter noted, “The USFS has been involved in the Statewide Bighorn Sheep-Domestic Sheep Interaction Working Group from the beginning, and I’m very optimistic that we will come out on the other side of this Risk of Contact Assessment with the state of Wyoming and the interaction group working even more closely with the USFS, which is huge.”
What it means
“From the perspective of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, I don’t believe that this will change our focus,” McWhirter commented. “We are trying to work closely with the USFS to follow the Wyoming Bighorn Sheep Domestic Sheep Plan together.”
Miyamoto added, “Wyoming Stock Growers Association Executive Director Jim Magagna made an important point when he said this model does not show, contrary to its title, risk of contact between Bighorn sheep and domestic sheep.”
Rather, the model shows the likelihood that a Bighorn sheep might set foot on a domestic sheep allotment.
“For example, a coefficient of 0.3 means a Bighorn sheep will set foot on an allotment three times in a decade,” Miyamoto added. “We had quite a good discussion, and the USFS didn’t refute that this is what the model does.”
Similar telemetry hasn’t been done to track domestic sheep, he said, also noting that information based on pathogens present in populations isn’t included.
In addition to the Risk of Contact Assessment, USFS also distributed vacant allotment maps.
“These maps show what areas are available, which are closed and also where forage reserves that could be considered as mitigation are located,” Wichmann said.
Miyamoto added, “We will be able to utilize these allotment maps for more than alternative review of domestic sheep allotments, as well as for reasons like natural disasters, fire and flood.”
The working group will continue its efforts to address interaction between Bighorn sheep and domestic sheep on grazing allotments around Wyoming, and there are several items that they will likely focus on.
“The process to identify factors that aren’t captured in the Risk of Contact Assessment is likely the next thing that will start happening,” McWhirter explained. “That information will come from permittees, agencies and other non-governmental organizations.”
Further, McWhirter noted that identification of areas to address risk and development of mitigation measures where necessary will also likely be forthcoming.
“Overall, I was encouraged that there is not a rush from USFS to propose administrative changes,” he continued. “The Wyoming Plan is built around a key tenant that we aren’t going to take action under a sense of urgency or duress, and what we heard is that USFS is taking a very methodical approach that involves all of these stakeholders working collaboratively.”
Miyamoto also noted that the working group will continue to review the latest science and address the research needs that arise related to Bighorn sheep and domestic sheep interaction.
“This is a really contentious issue West-wide,” said McWhirter. “We have a largely positive working relationship between everyone in the group, but we have been meeting for a long time to build those relationships. I think that is paying off.”
The Bighorn Sheep Domestic Sheep Interaction Working Group has been meeting for 15 years to address the issues affecting both wildlife and the livestock industry.
He added, “We are head and shoulders above much of the West as far as working together on this issue, and I believe that will continue.”