The future of bighorn sheep got a boost from the Montana Supreme Court recently.
The court ruled that the state Department of Lands could not permit private landowners to run domestic sheep on public land without preparing an environmental analysis of the impacts the practice might have on wild bighorn sheep.
The Sept. 29 decision was lauded by wild-sheep advocates throughout the west, including Bill Foreyt, Washington State University bighorn researcher.
Wild sheep are alarmingly susceptible to contracting disease from their domestic relatives, he said.
“We have shown clearly from our research that domestic sheep and bighorn sheep cannot survive together,” he said. “The bighorns die.”
Confirmed by several studies, the vulnerability of bighorns has led to the removal of domestic sheep from federal lands such as Hells Canyon National Recreation Area in Idaho.
But the issue in Montana required a legal battle.
The case originated in 1991, when rancher George Madden acquired a lease on the Bitterroot Valley’s Sula State Forest. However, while most ranchers in the area graze cattle, Madden chose to graze sheep.
Several conservation groups protested the unleashing of sheep in the range based on research that practice would be lethal to the area’s bighorns.
When the state Department of Lands refused to conduct an environmental analysis, the groups sued and lost a decision in District Court. The groups, led by the Ravalli County Fish and Game Association, appealed to the state Supreme Court.
The plaintiffs’ attorney, Jack Tuholske, praised the court’s reversal of the decision, saying, “We believe the law required the department to honestly assess the serious threat posed by the domestic sheep, and the court agreed.”
Harry LaFriniere, past president of the sportsmen’s group, said hunters and conservationists from the Montana Wildlife Federation, Skyline Sportsmen’s Club and Anaconda Sportsmen’s Club spent about $10,000 on the suit.
Grazing was not the issue in the case, LaFriniere emphasized.
“We probably would have settled this case if the state had required cattle grazing, which was the historic use of the area, instead of sheep,” he said. The issue, he said, was one person’s decision to threaten a region’s wildlife heritage.
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