BOZEMAN, Mont. — Federal officials won’t make any changes to domestic sheep grazing guidelines on public land in a southwestern Montana mountain range despite objections from wild sheep advocates who argue the practice threatens a nearby herd of wild bighorns.
Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest officials issued a final decision that said the forest didn’t need to amend its forest plan after considering the impacts of a multiagency agreement that lines out how ranchers should react if a bighorn sheep ranges too closely to the domestic herds. Domestic sheep are known to transmit fatal diseases to their wild cousins and managers try to ward off that possibility by keeping the two separated.
The decision maintains the status quo for sheep producers who use seven allotments in the Gravelly Mountains southwest of Ennis. Environmentalists have long sought to end grazing there in the interest of preserving habitat for a herd of wild sheep that was reintroduced into the nearby Greenhorn Mountains in 2003 and 2004.
The Gallatin Wildlife Association and the Yellowstone Buffalo Foundation sued the Forest Service over the grazing allotments and the agreements in 2015. A federal judge sided with the groups in part and ordered the Forest Service to consider and disclose the impacts of the agreements.
The Forest Service released a final environmental analysis of the agreements last January. The final decision was released last week.
Glenn Hockett, president of the Gallatin Wildlife Association, said the decision is disappointing. He and others argue that grazing limits bighorn sheep restoration in the Gravelly Range because the wild animal needs separation from domestic sheep.
“Bighorn sheep are a sensitive species,” Hockett said. “The Forest Service should be doing proactive things to restore habitat.”
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks reintroduced a total of 69 sheep to the Greenhorns with one transplant in 2003 and another in 2004. The most recent count showed at least 41 sheep remain, according to FWP biologist Dean Waltee.
Bighorns exist in small, isolated populations across Montana. Several herds have experienced die-offs after catching disease from domestic sheep. Wildlife managers focus on maintaining separation between domestic and wild sheep to reduce the risk of die-offs — either by killing interloping bighorns or chasing them away.
The agreements between the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the sheep ranchers in the Gravelly range allowed ranchers to request kill permits for wild sheep that come within a half-mile of domestic herds.
The Forest Service’s decision document said that portion of the agreement has not been used.