Sweetwater Rocks Bighorn sheep transplant delayed due to landowner concerns
Lander Region Wildlife Coordinator Daryl Lutz told the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission during their meeting the last week of January the proposal to transplant Bighorn sheep into the Sweetwater Rocks near Jeffrey City has hit a snag and will be delayed. The agency had hoped to conduct the transplant within the next month or two.
“We’re slowing the process down,” Lutz said, to try to provide assurances needed to gain livestock producer support for the project.
WGFD evaluation approval
The commission gave its nod of approval for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) to evaluate the feasibility of transplanting Bighorn sheep into the region in response to a proposal advanced by Pathfinder Ranches, LLC.
In a letter to the state wildlife agency last summer, Pathfinder Ranches wrote of its support for a reintroduction project so long as Bighorn sheep would “not be or become a talisman for those groups wishing to disrupt, reduce, hamper, slow or otherwise negatively impact livestock grazing on federal, state and private lands” in the area.
Lutz told the commission the current proposal is the fourth plan to establish a Bighorn sheep population in the Sweetwater Rocks area since the 1980s, but each was abandoned due to landowner opposition and concern over livestock grazing permits.
What’s different this time is the support of two major landowners in the area – including Sweetwater Ranches – and WGFD Director Brian Nesvik’s level of determination to find a resolution which can pave the way for livestock producer support.
After landowners and permittees expressed concern about their ability to graze domestic stock on public land allotments managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) if the transplants were approved, Nesvik wrote a letter to the BLM stating, “Should Bighorn sheep be used as a surrogate by federal land managers to adjust allotment stocking rates or otherwise reduce livestock grazing in the Sweetwater Rocks Cooperative Review Area, the department will remove the wild sheep.”
Lutz reported, while livestock producers appreciated Nesvik’s letter, they doubted the letter would impact potential BLM grazing decisions, especially if the BLM were sued by environmental advocates for failing to adhere to BLM’s national policy requiring the separation of Bighorn sheep from domestic sheep on BLM lands because of concern for the risk of disease transfer.
Lutz called the producer concerns “grave and legitimate,” and said area landowners are supportive of wildlife in the region, but the impact of the national BLM policy on separation of the sheep species would fall on livestock producers in the area.
After conferring with the Wyoming Bighorn/Domestic Sheep Interactions Working Group, and a subgroup of the working group, Lutz said the wildlife agency went back to the landowners and livestock producers in the area and found opposition to the proposal had increased to the extent that most landowners opposed the transplant, mostly because of the potential impact to federal land grazing permits.
Replying to a question, Lutz confirmed the BLM’s sheep separation policy could result in both cuts to animal unit months as well as closure of grazing allotments.
Meeting planned to develop strategy
“At the end of the day, we’ve got to look outside the box,” said Nesvik.
The WGFD director is gathering a group of lawyers and stakeholders for a meeting in early February to develop a legal strategy to determine what sort of assurances can be put in place to ensure livestock grazing would not be impacted by the proposed transplant. Nesvik suggested alternatives may include going through a National Environmental Policy Act process with the BLM, or initiating a change in BLM’s policy to allow such Bighorn sheep transplants to move forward without impacting livestock permits.
“If we’re able to identify assurances the producers can get comfortable with, I think this very worthy project goes forward,” Nesvik said. “And, I think short of having those assurances, I think it’s a bad idea for us to go in there if we can’t find a way to satisfy some justified concerns.”
Cat Urbigkit is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and is a member of the Wyoming Bighorn/Domestic Sheep Interactions Working Group. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.