Federal Agreement on Bighorns Draws Ire of Western States

The Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) charges that the U.S. Forest Service and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) quietly penned a draft Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) this fall that would usurp state wildlife management authority, according to a December 1 letter WAFWA sent to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), reports the Wildlife Management Institute. The draft agreement between the two federal agencies would require all bighorn sheep that are reintroduced or translocated onto national forest lands to be tested for disease by APHIS and approved by the Forest Service before being released.

USDA officials cited a lack of assurance that translocated bighorns are disease-free as the primary reason for developing the agreement. In an interview, USDA Under Secretary for Natural Resources and the Environment Mark Rey stated that the downside of improved wildlife management over the last 100 years or so has been increased disease transmission within wildlife communities as well as between domestics and wildlife.

“We questioned whether we knew the disease status of bighorn sheep being translocated onto national forest lands and the answer was yes in some cases, but not in all. Testing practices can vary from state to state and even with individual translocations. In fact, in many cases, we don’t know that each animal is disease free, and we need to know that so we are not compounding the disease issue,” Rey said.

However WAFWA, a quasi-governmental organization representing 23 state and provincial wildlife management agencies, countered that member agencies already have stringent health-testing protocols, mandated by federal regulations, during translocation. Perhaps more importantly, it asserted that the MOU would undermine the long-established authority of states to manage wildlife populations: “It appears this MOU was drafted without consideration of the long-standing working relationship and existing agreements between the named federal agencies (i.e., USFS, APHIS) and the state fish and wildlife management agencies. As written, this MOU contravenes existing law and policy, is unworkable in day-to-day management of the states’ wildlife resources, and produces a host of undesirable (and perhaps unintended) consequences….Collectively, we [WAFWA member agencies] view this MOU as an attempt to usurp state wildlife agency jurisdiction and authority, and we will actively challenge that interference, if deemed necessary.”

No state agencies were consulted in the drafting of the MOU, according to WAFWA, and state agencies first learned of it on November 19. The strongly worded comments the organization submitted were hurried in order to meet a December 1 comment period deadline. WAFWA member organizations, including the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources also submitted comments separately. Rey, however, contends that the process to write the MOU only developed over the last month or so and that they have been working with states since early in the process.

Protecting the health of bighorns
The MOU suggests the new protocol is in the interest of bighorn sheep populations. It begins: “The purpose…is to reduce the risk of disease transmission associated with wild bighorn sheep reintroduction on National Forest System lands. Bighorn sheep populations have declined in much of western North America. Available evidence suggests that respiratory disease has been a substantial factor in this decline. Therefore, it is important to minimize the risks associated with the reintroduction or translocation of wild bighorn sheep, to the maximum extent practicable.”

Bighorn populations were locally extirpated in much of the West in the mid-20th century with anecdotal connections being made to the increase in domestic sheep grazing in adjacent areas. Reintroductions have been undertaken by state fish and wildlife agencies and supported by interest groups, including the Wild Sheep Foundation (formerly the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep). However, efforts to reestablish stable populations have been hampered by periodic die-offs, and research began pointing to disease as a leading factor in the deaths. It’s estimated that the current bighorn population in the United States is less than 10 percent of what it was before settlement of the West.

Because bighorn sheep and domestic sheep are so closely related, bighorns are thought to be highly susceptible to bacteria carried by domestic sheep, but to which domestic sheep tend to be resistant. Research has isolated specific strains of respiratory bacteria including mycoplasma and pasteurella (see the August 2007 issue of the Outdoor News Bulletin) carried by domestic sheep that cause pneumonia and death in bighorn sheep.

A 2006 risk analysis done by the Forest Service on the Payette National Forest reported “an extensive body of scientific literature has accumulated on the effects of disease in bighorn populations. The literature indicates the following: 1) numerous examples of bighorn die-offs due to disease have been documented; 2) bighorn die-offs were documented as early as the mid 1800s and have been documented in every state in the western U.S.; 3) bighorn die-offs typically follow known or suspected contact with domestic sheep; 4) under experimental conditions, clinically healthy bighorn sheep have developed pneumonia and died within days to weeks following contact with clinically healthy domestic sheep; 5) a variety of diseases and pathogens have been implicated in die-offs, but most commonly the disease implicated in the die-off is bacterial pneumonia (Pasteurellosis) caused by Mannheimia haemolytica (formerly Pasteurella haemolytica) or other species of closely related Pasteurella bacteria; 6) there is consensus among wildlife biologists and veterinarians experienced in bighorn sheep management that domestic sheep and bighorn sheep must be kept separated in order to maintain healthy bighorn populations.”

Management efforts for several decades have focused on creating buffers between domestic sheep and goats and bighorn populations. Several states have developed agreements between federal, state and tribal wildlife and agriculture agencies as well as with wildlife and livestock interest groups to reduce interactions between the two species. But, in several cases, creating the necessary buffer between domestic and wild sheep has resulted in the loss of grazing allotments on public lands for sheep ranchers.

Drawing the line between domestic and wild sheep
The Payette National Forest currently is a focal point of the struggle between domestic and bighorn sheep. The national forest encompasses the Idaho side of Hells Canyon, which provides excellent bighorn habitat and has been a key site for reintroduction of the species. In addition, rocky outcrops around the Salmon River within the forest are the home of one of the few remaining native populations of bighorns in the country. In 2007, faced with a lawsuit, the forest blocked domestic sheep grazing on four allotments that directly connect with bighorn sheep habitat along the Snake and Salmon rivers just days before the May 15 turnout date. A Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) for the Payette’s Resource Management Plan released in October 2008 would eliminate sheep grazing on all but four allotments of the forest.

Closing the allotments in 2007 forced sheep ranchers to find alternative grazing land or sell large portions of their flocks. Opponents of the Forest Service’s decision state that the Payette National Forest’s draft SEIS ignores the fact that the bighorns in Hells Canyon were reintroduced only through an understanding that the domestic sheep operators would be held harmless from any disease-transmission problem associated with the reintroduction. They argue that scientific research has not specifically documented disease transmission between wild bighorns and domestic sheep or that the bighorns themselves are free of the bacteria while the domestic sheep upon the allotments are carriers.

The recent Forest Service/APHIS MOU appears to speak directly to these questions, though Rey insists the two are separate. “The areas of conflict in the Payette are primarily native populations of bighorn sheep where there isn’t an issue of bringing in diseased animals,” he said.

Gray Thornton, Executive Director for the Wild Sheep Foundation applauded the fact that the USDA had recognized that there is enough of an issue with respiratory disease and bighorn sheep die-offs to craft the MOU: “The problem is that they are placing the blame on the wrong vector. There is substantial evidence that domestic sheep can infect bighorn sheep, and not one study, to my knowledge, that shows infection goes in the opposite direction. If they are going to require testing of all bighorn sheep released on national forests, perhaps they should also be testing all of the domestic sheep on forest service allotments.” Rey noted that domestic sheep that will be moved across state lines are tested for disease.

“The larger issue with the MOU, of course,” Thornton continued, “is the issue of who has the authority to make decisions over the management of wildlife. Existing policy and law supports the state’s authority and I agree with the state agencies that this goes over those boundaries.”

Under Secretary Rey disagreed and argued that, under the National Forest Management Act, the Forest Service is required to maintain viable populations of wildlife. “We believe it is within our right to ensure that animals that are transplanted on to Forest Service lands are healthy. We are going to move this agreement forward and believe that we are doing what is prudent to prevent the spread of disease.”

Rey stated that USDA will incorporate suggestions recommended by WAFWA to look at testing the states are already using during translocations and evaluate their effectiveness. But USDA continues to believe it has the authority to enforce testing required by the MOU. It intends to finalize the document as quickly as possible, which will pave the way for a potential legal showdown to determine who has the ultimate say in wildlife management actions on federal lands. (jas)

--Wildlife Management Institute