The Montana Chapter of the Wild Sheep Foundation (MTWSF) and the Wild Sheep Foundation (WSF) would like to add context and clarity as to why we strongly oppose using the Greenhorn bighorn sheep population as a basis for a preliminary injunction filed against the USFS to prevent domestic sheep grazing on the Gravelly Range grazing allotments.

MTWSF strongly supported agency and woolgrower efforts in proposing and initiating the Greenhorn Sheep transplant. MTWSF raised and provided funding for the Greenhorn Sheep introduction including capture and transplanting efforts and radio collars for released wild sheep. MTWSF also purchased a satellite phone that was provided to the woolgrowers grazing in the Gravelly Mountains in order to facilitate communication, a key to effective separation.

All parties, US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, MT Fish, Wildlife and Parks, MTWSF and the MT Woolgrowers were aware of concerns over disease transmission between wild and domestic sheep. The FWP Commission reviewed the 2001 Draft EA, and before they approved the proposed transplant in 2002, directed FWP staff to develop an agreement with area domestic sheep producers and agency partners that would clearly spell out how all would work together, if wild sheep were transplanted to the Greenhorns. The Commission, consistent with the FWP transplant policy of the time, would have almost certainly NOT approved this transplant without the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between federal land management agencies, FWP and area domestic sheep producers. The 2002 and the updated 2008 MOUs were important to the success of the bighorn reintroduction efforts.

To date, and with the 2016 MOU in place, this is the most focused effort toward effective on-the-ground separation in Montana; thus far, it has proven successful. There has been no known contact between domestic and wild sheep resulting from the Greenhorn transplant, and there has been no known catastrophic disease challenge to wild sheep. Wandering wild sheep, with their tendency to slowly expand their home ranges following this 2003/2004 transplant, have done so since 2008 in westerly, northerly and easterly directions, not expanding south towards domestic sheep allotments. After 13 years post-transplant, the primary concerns with separation vs. potential contact lie with private land flocks, not the federal land grazing allotments.

Importantly, key elements in the 2002 and 2008 MOUs between all parties clearly state, “… that reintroduction of bighorn sheep will not cause the agencies to adjust the operation of the Grazing Permitees’ domestic sheep grazing operations or trailing patterns without the permitees’ consent”. Whether viewed as binding or not, that was the spirit of the agreement. An injunction that prohibits the producer from grazing the allotments based on the Greenhorn wild sheep introduction and herd establishment is counter to the agreement that allowed MTFWP to reintroduce wild sheep in the Greenhorns.

The Montana Wild Sheep Foundation and the Montana Woolgrowers Association have been working hard to overcome decades of conflict that has been fueled by disease transmission and comingling of domestic and wild sheep. MTWSF coauthored with the Montana Woolgrowers an ‘op ed’, releasing it to all the major MT news outlets in April 2016. It describes how we are going to work together to support both wild sheep conservation and the domestic sheep industry. We again came together in February of 2017 to cohost, along with MTFWP and WSF, a domestic/wild sheep symposium that brought together some of our most respected domestic/wild disease scientists from Montana State University and other western states and provinces. Producers, sportsmen and women, and other conservationists were provided an open forum for information exchange on the biggest challenge facing wild sheep restoration and conservation, respiratory disease. We came away with a new understanding that the same respiratory pathogens that kill wild sheep also impact domestic sheep health and can have a negative impact on economics in the domestic sheep industry.

MTWSF and WSF are the premier conservation organizations for wild sheep in Montana, and the world, respectively. We work closely with federal, state, provincial, territorial governments, other conservation interests, private landowners in Montana and similar interests worldwide to “put and keep sheep on the mountain”. Our efforts in Montana include raising dollars for wild sheep management, research and habitat conservation. This includes habitat acquisition, capture and transplanting, and research. Our efforts will continue to be focused on working with the Montana Woolgrowers to collaboratively develop effective separation practices, building on successes in the Greenhorn/Gravelly Mountains. Our efforts are also directed in helping to develop additional funding for collaborative science-based understanding of respiratory disease in both domestic and wild sheep.

Brian Solan is executive director of the Montana Wild Sheep Foundation. Kurt Alt is conservation director for the Montana and International Wild Sheep Foundation.