Wild bighorn sheep of the Salmon River Mountains of Idaho, whose descendants date to ancient times, stoically carry out their existence unaware of a controversy that has embroiled the community around them.
Domestic sheep have been pulled off 70 percent of the Payette National Forest after a ruling by the forest supervisor. The ruling is based on scientific evidence demonstrating that domestic sheep can spread bacterial pneumonia to wild bighorn sheep. Domestic sheep operators, backed by an Idaho Legislature predominantly populated by politicians backed by ranching interests, and the powerful Woolgrowers Association PAC, have unleashed a vigorous campaign to force a rider onto a congressional budget bill that will prevent federal land managers from doing anything about transmission of the disease for five years.
The Woolgrowers Association has said it wants to see more collaboration with bighorn advocates, and that a vaccine, which will enable domestic sheep to graze in bighorn country without infecting wild bighorns, will be released imminently. At the same time, they argue there is no proof bighorns contract bacterial pneumonia from domestic sheep in the first place.
In 2008, Gov. Butch Otter’s Bighorn Sheep/Domestic Sheep Collaborative was formed. All stakeholders were invited to participate: domestic sheep operators, the Woolgrowers Association, tribes, sportsmen organizations and environmental groups. This collaboration subsequently dissolved due to the Woolgrowers Association ramrodding of SB1232 through the state Legislature and its denying the science of disease transmission between domestic sheep and bighorns. That rendered the collaborative irrelevant and nonproductive, making talks of future collaborative efforts difficult.
The breakdown of the collaborative process has placed the decision-making process in the hands of people like Suzanne Rainville, supervisor of the Payette National Forest, and her team of biologists. They went through an exhaustive review process, gathered scientific studies, data and literature demonstrating that domestic sheep transmit Mannheimia haemolytica to bighorn sheep. A single incident can cause the die-off of an entire bighorn sheep population. Rainville ruled that domestic sheep shall be removed from areas in the Payette National Forest where contact between the two species could occur.
The Woolgrowers Association never thought its powerful control of the Legislature would allow this to occur. The group has redoubled its efforts, working to convince our political representatives in Washington, D.C., to attach a rider to a U.S. Department of Interior appropriations bill that will put domestic sheep back into wild bighorn sheep areas. The Woolgrowers’ arguments that domestic sheep do not pass pneumonia on to bighorn sheep, and that a vaccine will protect bighorn sheep from disease from domestic sheep, are not only contradictory, they aren’t supported by science. At a time when this country is in an economic downturn and under financial scrutiny, why would we advocate spending millions of research dollars on a vaccination program for a problem that does not exist?
Bighorn sheep are an icon of Idaho and vitally important to sportsmen and all Idahoans who cherish wildlife and the rugged fabric that makes the state special. We can’t take what we have in Idaho for granted and let politics trump science, forcing our land managers to do nothing while domestic sheep roam alongside wild bighorn sheep. The loss of native bighorn sheep populations such as those in the Salmon River Mountains would denigrate the legacy of wildlife diversity for future generations.
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