Private livestock, public problem.
It's the third time bighorns in the Tendoys have experienced significant disease outbreaks, and it's yet another example of what happens when domestic sheep and wild sheep meet. There have been at least 30 significant disease-related events in the last 20 years, says Wild Sheep Foundation Conservation Director Kevin Hurley. Many occurred on public land.
"It's the biggest issue I've faced in my career," says Hurley, who spent 30 years working with bighorns for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
Livestock grazing on public land has been a contentious issue since as far back as the 1970s, when various interests clashed over the best use of Western land. Known as the Sagebrush Rebellion, ranchers and environmentalists battled over who should control federal land and what activities should be permitted. Little has changed.
"There's this attitude among some groups that if it can be grazed, it must be grazed, and if someone wants to put sheep or cattle on it, we must allow it," says Andy Kerr, a self-described environmental agitator whose work includes helping conservation groups buy public lands grazing permits from ranchers.
He and Hurley agree that public land should be utilized by everyone, including local residents who make a living off the land. However, Kerr says hunters and other recreational users often take a backseat to grazing interests.
A study conducted by the U.S. Forest Service in Oregon found that cattle and horses on public land consumed 82 percent of the available forage in the study area. Excessive grazing also creates an avenue for the spread of invasive plants like cheat-grass, which crowds out beneficial plants. Livestock grazing is also a contributing factor to the decline in sage grouse. The iconic Western bird is under consideration for listing on the Endangered Species Act. Two-thirds of the bird's habitat consists of federal land, and nearly all of it is or has been grazed at one time. Cattle can have a significant impact on sage grouse nesting and brood-rearing cover.
"This isn't just about sage grouse or elk or deer or antelope," Kerr says. "The entire eco-system suffers. Everything from native grasses and shrubs to flowers and other plants are harmed by livestock. Big game, birds, and even insects depend on native plants. Cattle contribute to significant water-quality issues, too, so it isn't just hunters who are affected."
The residual impacts are just as damaging. University of Montana Professor of Wildlife Conservation Dr. Paul Krausman says fences are a significant problem for big game on public land. They block migration corridors and kill deer, elk, and antelope that become entangled in them.
"Cattle will also outcompete wildlife and displace game species where there is a limited resource," says Krausman. "It's especially apparent in the desert Southwest where there is very little forage to begin with. You don't want livestock in areas where you want to manage for big game."
Despite the myriad issues, grazing can have a positive impact on the habitat, agree Krausman and Utah State University Professor of Wildland Resources Dr. Fee Busby. Water sources built for five-stock help sustain a variety of wildlife species, and grazing cattle and sheep can help some wildlife species.
"If it's done right, you can actually manipulate the habitat in a way that removes undesirable shrubs like older sagebrush while leaving stands of more desirable shrubs like bitterbrush," says Busby.
"That actually benefits wildlife. It has to be done with the right livestock for the right amount of time and at the right season. Unfortunately, that's not done very often. We've gone almost exclusively to cattle, and they often graze a tract of land too long."
When grazing rates are as low as $1.35 per animal unit per month (one cow and calf), who can blame ranchers for squeezing every stalk of grass out of the public landscape? Fees charged for public land grazing are just a fraction of what ranchers pay on similar private land. Overall, the federal lands grazing program cost taxpayers $1 billion over the last decade, according to a 2015 report commissioned by the Center For Biological Diversity (CBD).
Sheep are just as costly as cattle, but they are far less damaging to the habitat. The same USFS study conducted in Oregon found domestic sheep ate less than one percent of the available forage. Competition for food isn't the main issue with sheep, says Hurley. The primary threat comes from disease transmission. Anywhere the two animals cross paths, bighorns suffer. "[Domestic sheep are] the biggest impediment to bighorn sheep restoration we face," he says.
The issue isn't important just to hunters. Public lands grazing has in some ways united two groups that are normally at odds with each other: environmentalists and conservationists. Organizations like the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the CBD, all of which have expressed some anti-hunting sentiment, have spoken out against public lands grazing policy. A number of them have filed lawsuits against the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Pro-hunting groups are also working to reduce livestock grazing on public land, but they are taking a more pragmatic approach.
"They know hunters need access to or through private land, and they often rely on private landowners for their conservation work, so these groups don't want to alienate landowners," says Kerr.
Hurley agrees. Much of the land vital for wintering big-game animals lies on private ground. The last thing conservation groups like the WSF want to do is anger local farming interests.
"We can work together, we just can't be together," says Hurley, referring to domestic and wild sheep interests.
Instead of attempting to force ranchers off public land through lawsuits or legislation, the WSF and other conservation groups are instead trying to work with them to affect change, including providing financial incentives to move sheep away from bighorns. They've made some progress.
"We were able to set aside 71,000 acres on the west slope of the Tetons just for bighorns through an agreement with the sheep industry' says Hurley. "Bighorn numbers are up in that area."
The WSF also bought 13 grazing permits, which effectively ended grazing on public land critical to wild sheep. Other groups have done the same thing. However, permit buyouts are expensive, and some ranchers have no interest in giving up their lifestyles. Others are willing to work with conservation groups because they care or because they can see the writing on the wall. Either way, there might be more bighorn sheep and other wildlife on the Western landscape.