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US Sheep Farmers Hit Back in Bighorn Grazing Debate

18 September 2015

US – A feud between US sheep farmers and land managers is raging over the threat domestic sheep pose to a natural hill breed.

The spat has been ongoing for decades, fuelled by an emerging consensus that bacteria from domestic sheep, of less danger to the carriers, cause fatal viruses to the wild Bighorn sheep.

In recent weeks, the American Sheep Industry Association (ASI) has hammered messages out on the importance of public grazing, which gives Bighorns and farm sheep opportunity to mingle.

Playing out in some of North America’s most iconic forests, with Payette National Forest, Idaho, and Medicine Bow National Park, Wyoming, being notable examples, the debate has led to federal grazing curtailments and several lawsuits.

Bacteria carried by domestic pose a great threat to Bighorns. 

Earlier this summer, a judge ruled to keep 8,000 sheep on federal ranges this summer in Montana, much to the disappointment of the Gallatin Wildlife Association.

The GWA said domestic sheep compete with grizzly bear and Bighorn sheep introduced 12 years ago, according to the Western Livestock Journal.

The ASI said: "The U.S. Forest Service prohibited 13,000 sheep from grazing on their historic grazing allotments within the Payette National Forest in Idaho, putting one ranch out of business entirely and drastically reducing the operations of three other ranches.

"The Payette decision is being mirrored in other national forests with bighorn sheep populations and the BLM is considering grazing restrictions of BLM lands."

Bighorn “Die-Offs”

Reintroductions account for over half the Bighorn population, which plummeted between the mid-1850s and 1950, when they had disappeared from a “large portion” of their range.

This assessment appears in a literature review by wildlife biologist Cory Mlodik from 2012, which links contact with sheep and goats and subsequent Bighorn “die-offs”.

Experimental conditions have resulted in transmission of fatal pneumonia to bighorn sheep from domestic sheep, the report said.

But the review concluded that Bighorn sheep in the Shoshone National Forest, Wyoming, were at “very low” risk from farm sheep due to distances between occupied habitat.

Public Lands Question

The Bighorn is significant to native American tribes such as the Nez Perce tribe, which has “cultural traditions” involving the animal, as noted by a University of Idaho report in 2010.

This study said the scientific consensus backed the theory that domestic sheep bacteria cause a pneumonia-like condition in Bighorns.

Concerned over the impact of federal grazing requirements on the viability of sheep farming families, American Sheep Industry Association comments were submitted through the Public Lands Council claiming that domestic and Bighorn sheep had “co-existed in the same area for decades.”

Defending sheep farming in the Payette National Forest and other sites with Bighorn sheep populations, the ASI said 50 per cent of US sheep spend “some time” on public lands.

Michael Priestley

Michael Priestley
News Team - Editor

Mainly production and market stories on ruminants sector. Works closely with sustainability consultants at FAI Farms.

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