Bighorn sheep in Big Piney

Hank Edwards takes a sample from a Darby Mountain bighorn sheep’s ear in January 2017 while Gary Fralick and Adam Hymas talk. The Bridger-Teton National Forest is considering restocking bought-out domestic sheep grazing allotments in the area at the request of the livestock lobby.

Bridger-Teton National Forest officials are taking steps to allow sheep and cattle to return to lands vacated by livestock producers who voluntarily accepted payments to graze their herds elsewhere.

Talk of restocking bought-out livestock allotments has been going on behind the scenes for over a year. On Jan. 10 Acting Bridger-Teton Supervisor Derek Ibarguen wrote a letter to stockmen, sheepherders and other stakeholders outlining the Bridger-Teton’s intentions.

The plan is to move forward with a National Environmental Policy Act analysis that could allow Upper Green River Cattlemen’s Association cows and calves to occupy the former Elk Ridge, Lime Creek, Rock Creek and Tosi Creek sheep allotments.

A restocking request for returning sheep to two vacated allotments in the Wyoming Range, meanwhile, hinges on changing the forest plan to deemphasize protections for the Darby Mountain bighorn sheep herd.

“We think that we can do a focused amendment regarding bighorn sheep, and address that standard and guideline that only focuses on Darby,” said Deputy Regional Forester Tricia O’Connor, who will return in March to her normal duties supervising the Bridger-Teton.

The Wyoming Range’s Darby Mountain Herd was wiped out completely by poaching, and by competition and disease from domestic sheep by the 1960s. A reintroduction effort enabled the return of a small, isolated herd, but the state still considers its habitat a bighorn sheep “non-emphasis area,” where domestic sheep are prioritized over their native, wild counterparts.

Following Wyoming’s lead and deemphasizing the Darby bighorns in the Bridger-Teton’s guiding forest plan would “probably be” an alternative included in an upcoming analysis, O’Connor said.

“I think that will definitely be one of the options we look at,” she said.

The livestock lobby formally requested that the Bridger-Teton amend its forest plan in a July letter.

Wyoming Stockgrowers Association Executive Vice President Jim Magagna, who signed that letter along with Wyoming Wool Growers Association Director Amy Hendrickson, said Tuesday that the agricultural groups are looking for a firm schedule for completing the analyses. The Forest Service allocated the Bridger-Teton extra funding, O’Connor said, to get the studies done, though she could not recall how much money was budgeted for the job.

Bighorn advocates and conservationists who have watchdogged the restocking conversations wanted the Forest Service to instead deal with the issue in its forest plan. The years-long revision process was supposedly coming up, though O’Connor said it’s now indefinitely on hold.

Wyoming Wild Sheep Foundation Director Steve Kilpatrick said the Darby Mountain Herd deserves the longer, closer look. The herd’s struggles are emblematic of the species as a whole, which has declined from a settlement-era population of 5 million animals down to 85,000 to 90,000 by the 1990s. In Wyoming the population declined from “tens of thousands if not well over a hundred thousand” wild sheep down to 2,500 by 1960, before bouncing back to 6,500 by 1990, he said.

“Now we’re losing sheep again — we’ve lost 1,000 to 1,500,” Kilpatrick said. “They’re an extremely sensitive species — the canary in the mine — and what happens to them happens to other species. If we’re not careful, they’re going to be listed [as endangered] and then we’ll have some serious pushing and shoving going on.”

Greater Yellowstone Coalition wildlife coordinator Chris Colligan, who’s also engaged on the issue, pointed out that the “resource concerns” that led to the voluntary buyouts “haven’t disappeared.”

Kilpatrick agreed. Even after decades without domestic sheep, the alpine plant communities are still on the mend, he said.

“We did not know the level of sensitivity of these tall forb communities until the last few years,” said Kilpatrick, a retired habitat biologist. “Now we’ve got to rest them and learn. Plain and simple.”

Magagna said that none of the earlier Wyoming Range woolgrowers who agreed to buyouts on the 2,473-acre Black Canyon and 1,032-acre Cabin Creek allotments a handful of years ago are seeking restocking. Both Wyoming and Idaho sheep herders are interested in using the vacated lands, he said.

The News&Guide could not reach the National Wildlife Federation’s Kit Fischer, who helped broker the old buyouts, by press time Tuesday.

O’Connor said the buyouts are not reflected in forest plans or policies.

“It’s a business deal between the permittee and whoever’s giving them an incentive to leave their permit,” O’Connor said. “We often know they’re happening, but it’s not our business, so we try to stay out of it.”

After an allotment is bought out, it goes back into the hopper of vacated and occasionally used “forage reserve” allotments on the Bridger-Teton. There are 31 such allotments on the forest (18 vacant, 13 forage reserve), according to the Jan. 10 memo. Other than the four allotments in the Upper Green, the forest isn’t taking any imminent action to authorize restocking, O’Connor said.

Ranchers are interested in parts of the former sheep allotments because the acreage could help with grizzly bear conflicts by giving range riders more flexibility in where to graze cows.

The Bridger-Teton aims to complete a “grazing suitability assessment” to restock the Upper Green allotments in 2020. The plans won’t contemplate more cattle on the land — just more area. National Environmental Policy Act analysis would follow in 2021, according to the forest’s memo.

Editor's note: This story has been modified to correct information about the timing of the allotment buyouts. 

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Contact Mike Koshmrl at 732-7067 or env@jhnewsandguide.com.

Mike has reported on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem's wildlife, wildlands and the agencies that manage them since 2012. A native Minnesotan, he arrived in the West to study environmental journalism at the University of Colorado.

(1) comment

Tyler Johnson

I hope the sheep permittees are not in a rush. The B-T doesn't have the best track record on doing range allotment analyses in a timely manner, the Upper Green analysis is in what, year 11 now?

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