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.

In the nearby Whiskey Mountain area outside Dubois, and in other bighorn herds across the country, diseases have ravaged the populations. The Whiskey Mountain herd suffered “a catastrophic all-age dieoff” caused by pneumonia in 1991, according to a 2018assessment.

In the last three years that herd has lost perhaps 1,000 members and now numbers between 350-500, Kilpatrick said. Lamb survival is poor.

“That bug is resident in the population,” at Whiskey Mountain, he said. “My prediction is we’ll have that same thing happen from north of Dubois to Cody,” Kilpatrick said, “right in the heart — the crown jewel.”

Negotiations this summer included a proposal that conservationists purchase property and enable a land exchange that would turn over to the ranchers a patchwork of federal land among the Longwell and Frank Robbins family’s private parcels. In exchange, sheep grazing would end in bighorn range, according to Kilpatrick’s descriptions.

Longwell did not respond to an email seeking comment.

The exchange plan was unaffordable, Kilpatrick said, and would have set a bad precedent. “The ask was beyond our resources,” he said.

“We’re talking millions of dollars,” he said. “We’re pretty sure we can’t raise $5 million,” the estimated price of the land needed for exchange.

At issue was some 5,300 acres, he said. Also, conservationists would have to temporarily feed some 2,500 domestic sheep that would otherwise have grazed on the acreage, Kilpatrick said. A feedlot option would have cost an estimated $250,000 a year, he said.

“That’s a big chunk of change we’d have to come up with annually while we were working on the bigger [land exchange] project,” Kilpatrick said. Foundation donors believe the ranchers’ request is unfair and unreasonable, he said.

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Other grazing buyouts have cost on the order of $350,000, Kilpatrick said. The proposal at Owl Creek would have been 15 times as much, he said.

Efforts to arrive at a solution will continue, Smith said. “We want to keep working with the ranchers involved to find a solution that’s beneficial to the ranch,” he said. “We also want to find something beneficial to bighorn sheep.”

Kilpatrick is worried. “The future for Wyoming bighorns doesn’t look good if we can’t find common ground,” he said.

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