Commentary: Two environmental groups filed suit in federal court Wednesday claiming the Rio Grande National Forest is placing bighorn sheep at high risk by authorizing domestic sheep grazing in the vicinity of bighorn herds. The lawsuit, filed by WildEarth Guardians and Western Watersheds Project, asserts that the Rio Grande National Forest knew the risk that domestic sheep would cause to bighorn, yet authorized grazing anyway.
Domestic sheep carry a pathogen that, when transmitted to bighorn sheep, causes deadly pneumonia in bighorns and reduces lamb survival rates for years. The pathogen—known as Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae—is especially deadly because bighorns and domestic sheep are mutually attracted to each other. Once disease is in a bighorn herd, members of that herd can easily transmit the disease to nearby bighorn herds. There is no cure or vaccine.
Today’s suit centers on the Wishbone allotment near Creede, Colo. This new domestic sheep allotment was created after the Forest Service determined domestic sheep grazing in the adjacent Snow Mesa area placed bighorns at too high of risk. The lawsuit alleges that the new Wishbone allotment does nothing to reduce the risk to bighorns, and the Forest Service’s reasons for reducing the risk rating of the allotment and allowing grazing there were arbitrary. Indeed, the agency did not even analyze recent telemetry data from Colorado Parks and Wildlife that clearly shows extensive movement of bighorn sheep near the new allotment.
“The Forest Service closed the Snow Mesa area to domestic sheep grazing, but then merely moved the domestics to an adjacent area that is still right by bighorn herds. They then fudged their analysis by coming up with these fairy-tale reasons why the risk would be lower in this adjacent area,” said Greg Dyson of WildEarth Guardians. “If the agencies tasked with doing so won’t protect Colorado’s official state animal, we’re here to make sure they do,” he said.
“The science is overwhelmingly clear that the biggest risk to bighorn health is the diseases spread by domestic sheep grazing in and near bighorn habitat,” said Jonathan Ratner of Western Watersheds Project. “Bighorns belong in the rugged mountains of Colorado and deserve to be protected from large scale die-offs caused by a handful of highly-subsidized public lands grazing operations. The newly-created allotment merely pushes the same old problem into new places without adequately ensuring bighorn will be safe from domestic sheep.”
There are four bighorn herds near the Forest Service’s Wishbone allotment: the San Luis Peak, Bellows Creek, Bristol Head and Rock Creek herds. These four herds interact to form the larger Central San Juan bighorn meta-population. There are also three other bighorn populations within easy traveling distance for a bighorn, including the Weminuche population to the south, the Natural Arch/Carnero population to the east, and the San Juan West population to the west.
“The Forest Service’s conclusion that there is not a high risk to bighorn sheep from grazing domestic sheep on the Wishbone allotment ignored key evidence and contradicted known science about bighorn sheep and disease. The agency’s flawed analysis and conclusion violated its legal duties to present reliable information to the public and to protect this iconic species,” stated Laurie Rule, lead attorney on the case.
Bighorn sheep were wiped out during the era of Western settlement, as Old World pathogens carried by domestic sheep were transmitted to native bighorn sheep. By the early 1900s, bighorns had vanished from several states, with only a few thousand remaining from an estimated historic population of 1.5 to 2 million. Following more than six decades of extensive and costly restoration efforts, bighorn sheep have now been recovered to approximately 5% of their historic population levels and exist on roughly 10% of their historic range.
The groups are represented in the litigation by Laurie Rule of Advocates for the West and Maya Kane of Durango.