Domestic sheep grazing prompts emergency bighorn hunt

byAngus M. Thuermer Jr.

Gov. Mark Gordon has approved an emergency early season allowing hunters to kill up to 34 wild bighorn sheep in Hot Springs County’s Owl Creek drainage beginning Saturday.

The emergency hunt seeks to protect the largest population of bighorns in the Lower 48 from disease-causing pathogens carried by domestic sheep that are grazing on private land in their habitat.

The emergency order advances the regular season by a month and allows the killing of any age and sex of bighorn in the Owl Creek drainage. The hunt is restricted to the drainage.

The original season was to open Sept. 1 for the 34 hunters who drew licenses. The original dates and regulations still apply for the rest of bighorn sheep Hunt Area 5, which stretches from Thermopolis to Cody east of Yellowstone National Park. Hunting in Area 5 will last through Oct. 31.

Game and Fish officials worry that bighorns will mingle with domestic sheep and contract diseases that could lead to widespread, deadly pneumonia. Rancher Josh Longwell and his family, who have clashed with the wildlife agency and the Bureau of Land Management over wildlife, grazing and rights-of-way, began increasing sheep grazing on private land in the area several years ago.

Critics accuse Longwell and his father in law, Frank Robbins, of using domestic sheep — and the threat they pose to the prized bighorn herd — as leverage in their fights with the various agencies. Longwell has rejected that assertion and said the domestic sheep herds are profitable. He characterized the issues as conflicts between private property and public wildlife.

“We proposed this emergency rule because bighorn sheep were observed in close proximity to domestic sheep,” Game and Fish spokeswoman Sara DiRienzo said. “Very likely there could be some interaction.”

Under current Game and Fish plans, when there is the likelihood of bighorn sheep interaction with domestic sheep, “we would have to remove the [bighorn] sheep to protect the rest of the herd,” she said. Because the traditional hunting season is only a month away, Game and Fish decided to use hunters to accomplish the goal.

How many bighorns might be shot is uncertain. Owl Creek is remote and public access is difficult.

The emergency season is not expected to upset the population dynamics of the herd, DiRienzo said, even considering the unorthodox hunting of ewes  and lambs. Disease “has a much greater impact,” than the loss of some females, she said.

$5 million price tag

Game and Fish didn’t propose the emergency season until recently because officials were “working through management strategies,” DiRienzo said. Those included negotiations about ways to keep domestic sheep off grazing lands near bighorn range.

Game and Fish tried to find other grazing lands or even hay to feed the domestic sheep, said Dan Smith, Cody’s regional wildlife supervisor for the agency. He learned Monday that the governor had signed the emergency order, he said.

“Unfortunately, grazing opportunities are really limited around the Thermopolis area,” Smith said. “We weren’t able to come up with a source for providing hay.”

He doesn’t expect all 34 license holders to rush toward Owl Creek, Smith said. Game and Fish is confident bighorns are in the drainage, although agency personnel have not spotted the two species near one another or mingling this year.

“We’re hopeful some hunters will take advantage of that,” Smith said of the early season. “Certainly not all will do that. Many of those [hunters] will already have a plan in place.”

Because bighorn licenses are difficult to obtain in the Game and Fish lottery, hunters may shy away from Owl Creek ewes and lambs to opt for a ram elsewhere, Smith and DiRienzo said.

When domestic sheep and bighorns were spotted near one another in the Owl Creek drainage last year, Game and Fish launched a helicopter and shooter to gun down up to eight bighorn rams. But the team could not find the wild sheep that agency employees had spotted earlier, an agency employee said. This year Longwell will apparently graze domestic sheep in the bighorn habitat again.

The outcome of negotiations is “disheartening,” Wyoming Wild Sheep Foundation executive director Steve Kilpatrick said.

“We worked together — the wild sheep and [agriculture] industry — for 20 years,” Kilpatrick said. The failed negotiations and early season are “a hard pill to swallow.”

The area’s bighorn population comprises some 4,000 native bighorns, the largest in the lower 48 states, Kilpatrick said. He and others are fearful that diseases which domestic sheep carry and transmit could drastically reduce those numbers.