Bighorn sheep, domestic sheep advocates work together to develop solutions
Casper – During a late-April meeting of the Wyoming Statewide Domestic Sheep and Bighorn Sheep Interaction Working Group, domestic sheep producers and Bighorn sheep advocates discussed the challenges of working together in light of the conflicts emerging in the industry.
“We’ve all been engaged in this effort for a long time,” said Kevin Hurley of the Wyoming Wild Sheep Foundation. “We have spent 14 years with a plan that does the most for the Bighorn sheep and still will keep a viable domestic sheep industry.”
Regardless, there is still question as to where the group would go next.
One question raised by producers was the question of viability analysis and using data.
“When we are dealing with a species not listed on the endangered species list, what is the case law history for the Forest Service to establish population objection for species that are clearly within the purview of the state of Wyoming?” asked Larry Hicks, Wyoming Senator for Senate District 11. “How does Forest Service conduct an analysis when it is clearly the decision of the state?”
Chris Iverson of U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Region Four commented that while the USFS recognizes the management responsibility of states, they also must comply with the National Forest Management Act (NFMA).
“We find our challenge in trying to comply with NFMA, which says we must maintain diversity in plant and animal communities and maintain viable populations of vertebrate species,” Iverson noted. “We generally use a qualitative analysis, and if we get a rich data set, we can do a formal quantitative population of viability analyses.”
On national forests, Iverson said that 95 percent of the species they are responsible for do not have significant population data for quantitative analysis, making qualitative analysis necessary.
“We are not setting numeric, specific population objectives,” he explained. “We look at habitat, ranges and age classes of forest conditions. We look at a qualitative analyses of what kind of habitat is necessary for populations.”
However, Hicks noted concern with the qualitative analysis, particularly when it is used to management options, questioning the level at which the USFS is required to utilize good science.
Iverson noted that the USFS is bound to use the best available science when making decisions and deciding which management options to use.
“A lot of the decisions that our forest supervisors will be faced with are risk management,” he explained. “The notion of flexibility is important.”
He provided the example of the Bighorn sheep herds in the Laramie and Douglas Peak areas. In that area, two of the three herds were determined necessary for viability, but the third herd was not determined to be necessary for a viable populations, largely based on qualitative data.
“We did not have a lot of quantitative data other than population sizes, so our judgment was done qualitatively,” Iverson said. “Risk management will continue in these situations.”
Viability and risk
The underlying concern, however, is the definition of viability and risk.
“What level of risk of transmission is acceptable?” asked Eric Molvar of Western Watersheds Project. “If we have one transmission, that can be it for viability. How can we say any risk is ok?”
“That is part of the risk management,” Iverson commented. “How do we manage the risk, and what is an acceptable level of risk? The forest superintendent makes the decision and chooses to accept the level of risk.”
At the core of comments received from meeting attendees, the idea that the Wyoming Bighorn Sheep Domestic Sheep Working Group plan was strongly supported by most.
“If we don’t identify what the real problems are, we aren’t going to come up with a solution,” said Hicks. “The trouble is the regulatory uncertainty from federal land use plans and litigation.”
“This coalition needs to find the solutions,” he continued. “If we don’t identify the problem, we fall right into a loss-win scenario.”
Strength in the Wyoming plan to deal with Bighorn and domestic sheep interaction was seen by a variety of stakeholders.
“The Wyoming plan is the leverage we hold,” said Jim Collins, a Thermopolis farmer.
However, others recognized that, while the document is signed by Wyoming regulatory agencies, it has no statutory authority.
“If we think proactively and start driving these positions, we have tremendous leverage,” Hicks said. “As a group, we need to focus on this plan.”
Hicks further advised that Governor Matt Mead should be approached to support the plan.
“It might be well worth taking the key components of the plan and synthesizing it for the Governor,” Wyoming Stock Growers Association Executive Vice President Jim Magagna commented.
For the immediate future, Hicks suggested that cooperating or coordinating agency status be pursued by the state to allow the state a seat at the table in developing planning.
“This conversation is helpful,” said Jessica Crowder of Governor Mead’s Office. “The Governor is interested in thoughtful ideas that this group can bring forward.”
Ryan McConnaughey of Cynthia Lummis’ Office also commented that the plans are very useful for Congressman Lummis, both in showing practical efforts toward on-the-ground conservation and in cooperative efforts.
The result was the formation of a committee, consisting of Hicks, Hurley and representatives from the Wyoming Department of Agriculture, Wyoming Livestock Board, Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the Wyoming Wool Growers Association, to summarize the group’s plan and look at opportunities going forward.
The subcommittee’s work will be presented during the working group’s next meeting, tentatively set for August.
To maintain sustainable ranges, attendees of the April Wyoming Statewide Domestic Sheep and Bighorn Sheep Interaction Working Group meeting suggested solutions to interactions.
Some producers suggested and supported the idea of dual use on allotments.
“Common use by dual species wouldn’t be a change,” said Wyoming Stock Growers Association Executive Vice President Jim Magagna. “It works well for private landowners, and BLM permittees do it on their permits. It is more difficult if the ownership isn’t the same.”
Magagna noted that if common use by two species under two permittees was a possibility, it must be a voluntary agreement, rather than a forced action.
Sheep producers further commented, “The conversation is all about closure and cuts. That is what we are worried about. We want to hear that there won’t be closure or cuts.”
Grazing flexibility and use of vacant allotments were also targeted as potential options.
“We need to look at management options, and I don’t anticipate any immediate or overnight decisions,” Iverson said. “We are looking at good faith efforts to maintain domestic sheep and viable Bighorn sheep populations.”
“We would ask U.S. Forest Service to keep as many animal unit months viable as possible,” producer Mary Thoman commented.