Victory for Bighorn Sheep

This guest post was written by Ruth Barreto, Regional Development Manager in National Wildlife Federation’s Rocky Mountain Regional Center.

Photo credit: Ryan Hagerty

National Wildlife Federation’s continuing efforts to protect bighorn sheep have scored a major victory.

In March of 2010, NWF joined with partners in Idaho including the Nez Perce tribe and the Idaho Wildlife Federation to provide comments to the Payette National Forest as it prepared an update to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement regarding the effects of domestic sheep grazing on bighorn habitat.

As a result, the Forest Service announced their decision to close much of Payette National Forest to domestic sheep grazing where conflicts exist.

The Forest Service cited “the preponderance of scientific literature” that shows that when domestic sheep come into contact with wild sheep, bighorns contract diseases and die in large numbers.

Prior to the mid-1800s, bighorn sheep were abundant throughout the West, with numbers estimated at 1.5 to 2 million. Large declines occurred because of overharvest, habitat loss, competition for forage, and disease transmission from domestic sheep that grazed in bighorn sheep habitat.

Today, bighorn populations have declined more than 70% from historic levels.

Payette National Forest Outcome To Be Important Precedent

Local wool growers have disputed the decision through a formal appeals process. National Wildlife Federation and its partners have also filed an appeal in an effort to support the Forest Service, calling for even stronger measures to protect wild bighorn sheep.

Instead of phased implementation, for example, bighorns and domestic sheep should be separated immediately while we develop more robust monitoring and evaluation directives and other mechanisms that encourage population growth and sustainability. This battle is likely to move into the legal realm, and by filing an appeal now, NWF and its allies will ensure that we have the legal standing to intervene effectively.

This is shaping up to be a key, precedent-setting legal contest with many other states watching carefully, as the outcome has the potential to influence how bighorns are managed on public lands throughout the West.

NWF Helping Nez Perce Monitor Bighorn Sheep

National Wildlife Federation has also provided equipment and resources, such as funding for GPS collars, collaborating with the Nez Perce tribe so they can more effectively monitor bighorn movements on the Payette National Forest and Hells Canyon.

Much of the tribe’s research has informed past decisions impacting bighorn sheep on federal lands. The tribe has been able to demonstrate with geographic accuracy, the range of specific populations. Building the Nez Perce’s capacity to monitor these animals will ultimately help buttress the Forest Service’s decision and provide useful data to the Idaho Department of Game and Fish in support of ongoing management efforts.