The Bureau of Land Management has formally barred sheep from three grazing allotments along the Salmon and Little Salmon rivers east and south of Riggins and reduced access to a fourth.
The move – made by BLM Idaho Director Timothy M. Murphy at Boise to protect wild bighorn sheep from a disease carried by domestic sheep – has been years in the making and follows action by the Payette National Forest in 2010 to close 70 percent of its sheep grazing allotments. The Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest also is in the process of closing sheep grazing allotments along the Salmon River.
Wildlife biologists and researchers believe domestic sheep carry a bacteria that causes pneumonia in bighorns. Across the West there have been several die-offs of bighorn sheep following contact with domestic sheep. Federal agencies, including the BLM, have adopted a strategy of keeping the two species separate in an effort to protect the bighorns that are prized by hunters and wildlife watchers. Murphy said the decision to close the allotments “will effectively reduce the potential for contact between domestic and bighorn sheep, and subsequent disease transmission to bighorn sheep.”
The agency announced the record of decision Friday. It will close the 9,500-acre Partridge Creek and the 4,200-acre Marshal Mountain allotments on the south side of the Salmon River canyon and the 5,200-acre Hard Creek allotment along the Little Salmon River to sheep and goat grazing but leave them open to other livestock. The decision leaves 439 acres of the Big Creek allotment near New Meadows open to sheep grazing but requires herders to follow an extensive list of precautions to ensure the animals don’t mix with wild sheep.
All four allotments have been closed to sheep grazing for several years because of concern over disease transmission. In 2010, BLM officials updated the Cottonwood Field Office’s Resource Management Plan but left blank the section on domestic sheep grazing after environmental groups lodged formal protests. At the time, agency officials pledged to address the issue with a supplemental environmental impact statement. That document led to the decision to close the allotments.
Sheep ranchers have disputed the scientific reasoning behind the grazing reductions and filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the cutbacks made by the Payette Forest. The case was dismissed in March by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.