Bighorn sheep targeted on Medicine Bow National ForestWritten by Christy Martinez
A lawsuit regarding bighorn and domestic sheep on the Medicine Bow National Forest would have big implications for agriculture, according to Wyoming Senator Larry Hicks, who represents Albany and Carbon counties in Senate District 11.
In early April, the Laramie-based Biodiversity Conservation Alliance (BCA) filed suit in U.S. District Court over whether special protection should be provided for the handful of bighorn sheep in the Sierra Madre Range near Encampment.
“They’re looking for a Payette-level decision in the state of Wyoming,” says Hicks, noting that the BCA attorney who filed the suit is a staff attorney for Western Watersheds Project.
After a court decision regarding the Payette National Forest in Idaho, a new management plan phased out domestic sheep grazing on 70,000 acres of bighorn sheep habitat.
According to Hicks, this lawsuit could undo the progress made by the Wyoming Statewide Domestic Sheep/Bighorn Sheep Interaction Working Group, which has worked collaboratively since 2000 to identify specific issues and locations around Wyoming that provide temporal and physical separation between bighorn sheep and domestic sheep, while still allowing domestic sheep grazing to occur on national forest and BLM grazing allotments.
“The state of Wyoming needs to vigorously defend Wyoming’s plan,” says Hicks, mentioning the management strategy that working group has developed.
As part of the solution to the BCA lawsuit, Hicks proposes a bill, which he introduced to the Joint Ag Committee at its meeting in Lander in early May.
“In the worst case scenario, the federal court would side with the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, and this bill would require the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) to remove those few bighorn sheep on the forest in that area,” explains Hicks. “Under this scenario, it’s a moot issue – there’s no more bighorn sheep with which to address the viability issue.”
He continues that, since the bighorn sheep are the property of the state, the WGFD routinely relocates sheep, and they could be taken to Sybile Canyon. Also, he says WGFD Director Scott Talbott has said the bighorns could be removed through licensed hunters, which is within the state’s purview.
“The Game and Fish Department and the Commission are solidly behind the state’s domestic sheep/wild sheep plan,” says WGFD Deputy Director John Emmerich. “We’ve been involved for 12 years, and we strongly support the current management for the Medicine Bow National Forest, which identifies it as a low priority, non-core population that doesn’t require the typical levels of protection we see in other places. If those sheep get exposed and we lose them, that’s the way it goes with that sheep herd.”
Emmerich says that, in the core areas for bighorn sheep, the WGFD does everything it can to protect intermingling with domestic sheep, like in the northern portion of the Shoshone National Forest.
“This is a significant issue, and we have a model other states are looking at in terms of how to manage this conflict that’s being debated across the West,” says Emmerich. “I think Wyoming’s plan is the way to do it, with a holistic look across the state and primary areas where wild sheep are and where we prevent intermingling, and other areas where domestic sheep take precedence.”
‘The stakes are high’
“If collaboration between historic combatants can’t work in Wyoming, where we have a plan and everybody has the opportunity for input, then I don’t know what will. BCA comes to every meeting and sits at the table. If this doesn’t work, what’s the option? To lawyer up and continue to sue and let the fed government manage our wildlife and agriculture. The stakes are high,” says Hicks.
“This is the test case. If they’re successful, I can guarantee we’ll see a similar attempt on every national forest in the state that has domestic sheep grazing,” says Hicks. “Western Watersheds Projects’ mission is to eliminate livestock grazing.”
Meeting focuses on sheep issues
A meeting scheduled for May 31 in Casper will discuss where the state of Wyoming is vulnerable, from a Payette level and from the bighorn sheep and domestic sheep perspectives. The meeting will focus on the lawsuit filed by the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance regarding bighorn sheep on the Medicine Bow National Forest.
“What resources and information do we need to collect in the state if the litigation does move forward, and we’re not successful in defending Wyoming’s plan?” asks Wyoming Senator Larry Hicks, mentioning better distribution of information on bighorn sheep that could better put the state of Wyoming in position to protect agriculture and the statewide management plan. “We’ve reintroduced two bighorn sheep herds, and they’ve been successful. The ramifications of this lawsuit are not just for agriculture, but they’re bad news for bighorn sheep, also.”
Hicks says the lawsuit is an “extreme frustration” for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, which continues to have organizations try to manage Wyoming’s wildlife through the federal court system.
“Will we continue to look at our plans and how the state, through the Game and Fish and collaborative processes, wants to manage wildlife, or will we continue to let litigious organizations try to manage our wildlife?” asks Hicks.
The WWGA perspective
According to Wyoming Wool Growers Association Executive Vice President Bryce Reece, there are three remaining sheep operations that use the Medicine Bow National Forest.
“At one time there were 250,000 head of sheep that went on that forest every summer. Now there are less than 10,000, and for this group, that’s too many,” says Reece of the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance. “We are proud of the Wyoming bighorn sheep management plan, and it’s being held up as a model around the state, in not only bighorn and domestic sheep, but all other things with potential conflicts.”
“If we lose this lawsuit, one particular operation is done, because they have nowhere to go. They have the fifth generation on the ranch right now, and they want to expand,” says Reece.
Reece says that, because of the Wyoming plan, he goes to Wyoming Game and Fish Department meetings and is able to support the introduction of bighorn sheep, if it’s done under the Wyoming plan.
“It’s likely the Wyoming Wool Growers Association and the Wyoming Wild Sheep Foundation will join together to intervene in this lawsuit, and that’s never happened before,” says Reece.