Forest Service sees 2017 as big year for Bighorn sheep, domestic sheep
The ongoing conflict between Bighorn sheep and domestic sheep continues in Wyoming, and in 2017, two “significant events” occurred, said Terry Padilla, U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Region IV range director, during a Dec. 12 meeting of the Wyoming Bighorn Sheep-Domestic Sheep Interaction Working Group in Lander.
“I would argue these events were as significant as the famous Payette decision in 2009,” Padilla said.
Specifically, Padilla pointed to two court decisions – one from the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest and one from the Caribou Targhee Forest – as having implications for the future of Bighorn sheep management in the West.
“Moving forward, I feel very strongly we need something similar to Wyoming’s Bighorn Sheep Plan in other states if we’re going to prevail on Bighorn sheep and domestic sheep objectives, in our region. We desire to continue, as a multiple use region, domestic sheep grazing as a way to meet our forest plan objectives,” Padilla commented.
Medicine Bow-Routt sheep
In 2012, on the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest, Biodiversity Conservation Alliance filed a federal lawsuit in an attempt to force USFS to separate domesticated sheep grazing from the small herd of wild Bighorn sheep in the forest.
“USFS prevailed against the merits of the plaintiff’s issues,” Padilla said of the case, which was decided this summer. “This decision has been a long time coming. This is a significant victory on behalf of all regions and the agency as a whole.”
Additionally, Padilla said a primary factor for the decision supporting sheep grazing was the Wyoming Bighorn Sheep Management Plan and the work of the Wyoming Statewide Bighorn Sheep-Domestic Sheep Interaction Working Group over the last several decades.
“I feel, moving forward, that the rest of the states in the West need to replicate Wyoming’s plan to the best of their ability,” he explained.
Caribou Targhee litigation
The Caribou-Targhee Forest was recently in the Ninth Circuit Court hoping to stay an injunction filed by Western Watersheds Project and WildEarth Guardians against a domestic sheep grazing permit held by the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station (USSES) in Dubois, Idaho.
“USSES was in the last year of a 10-year study that looked at the interaction between Bighorn sheep and domestic sheep in a natural setting when they were served with an injunction,” Padilla said, explaining the court action would stop the six-week winter grazing on USFS allotment. “We argued against the injunction and did not prevail.”
Ultimately, the United States District Court for the District of Idaho said, “Plaintiffs have established a likelihood of irreparable injury to the Bighorn population in this region of the forest if grazing is allowed during the six-week grazing season. The balance of the hardships additionally tips in favor of the Plaintiff.”
Because the case is in current litigation, Padilla was unable to share strategies for future legal action, but he emphasized USFS is working with USSES to consolidate a unified legal strategy moving forward.
“We must have a consolidated effort moving forward, and that effort must include our producers,” Padilla said.
Padilla also reported USFS is working with the State of Idaho to collect updated information from the Division of Wildlife to re-run their risk of contact model.
“When we re-run that model, we’ll put together the same brief and get together our supervisors and constituents, just like we did as part of our process in Wyoming,” he said. “In the State of Utah, the risk of contact model has been incorporated in our analyses.”
However, Padilla said USFS must make a decision on a project proposed in the Ashley and Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forests, which seeks to study the impacts of continued sheep grazing in the High Uintas Wilderness.
A decision must be made prior to spring 2018 or the agency may have to resort to temporary grazing permits for producers in the area, he noted.
Across the West, Padilla also reported sheep producers are anxiously awaiting decisions on grazing permit applications.
“Right now, I have 27 sheep producers who are standing in line waiting for sheep grazing permits in the Intermountain Region,” he said. “I’ve never seen the demand higher for grazing permits.”
Padilla further noted producers are willing to travel farther for grazing than they have in the past, and changes in the sheep industry necessitate change from USFS, as well.
Additionally, he said review of grazing allotment status has revealed room for deliberation to evaluate the future of USFS grazing plans.
“I feel very strongly we have to start looking at common use grazing on our allotments,” Padilla said. “We’ve moved away from common use grazing, and our country reflects that.”
Padilla noted USFS often must make drastic decisions, which requires copious amounts of evidence, but currently, “We’re being pushed to make management decisions relative to information we have yet to understand, quantify or know. That makes for tough decisions, but that’s the business of public lands management.”
Wyoming Livestock Roundup Managing Editor Saige Albert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.