For an animal that lives in such rocky and steep country, bighorn sheep are pretty frail and defenseless when put in contact with smaller domestic sheep and goats.
The sheep and goats carry a pneumonia virus that the bighorns have little resistance to, often proving fatal.
“This is an ongoing controversy,” said Kevin Hurley, conservation director for the Wild Sheep Foundation. “Thirteen of 15 western states that have bighorn sheep have had pneumonia die-offs. It’s a pretty ubiquitous situation.”
A recent analysis by the National Wildlife Federation, titled “Bighorns Risks: Identifying Risks Posed by Domestic Sheep,” is an attempt by a group of wildlife organizations to shine a spotlight on Montana’s iconic bighorn sheep herds and propose ways to protect and grow their populations.
“We have to address this issue,” Hurley said. “We believe there’s room on the land for both, just not together.”
By the numbers
The report released last week identifies the areas where bighorns and domestic goat and sheep herds overlap. From that information the author and contributors to the study hope that eventually greater separation can be built between the domestic and wild animals to ensure the health of bighorn sheep.
How to do that is simple and yet extremely difficult — keep the animals separated on the landscape — at least 20 miles by the National Wildlife Federation’s calculation. But that’s become increasingly more challenging as hobby herds of sheep and goats become more popular.
The hobby herds are nearly impossible to track, may not stay around long and the owners often don’t realize the risk the domestic animals pose to wild sheep. That’s why Hurley said the No. 1 goal of the report is to get information out to people.
“There are a lot of folks who don’t even know this is an issue,” he said.
On FWP’s radar
Certainly Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks personnel have long known about the problem. As far back as 1950 a report identified bighorn herds that failed to grow or suffered die-offs. “This fluctuation has been reported as occurring for the last fifty years, probably since white men came in …” the report stated.
Yet addressing the issue continually bumps into the state’s long agricultural heritage as well as private property rights.
Hurley said when the Wild Sheep Foundation was based in Cody, Wyo., (it has since moved its headquarters to Bozeman) it took part in a working group that included livestock producers.
“We’re trying to do this collaboratively; that’s what we did in Wyoming for 16 years on public land,” he said.
On the state wildlife management side, FWP needs to be more proactive, said Tom Carlsen, a retired FWP biologist who helped write the state’s bighorn management plan.
“Part of the issue with sheep management in Montana is there’s nobody to ramrod it,” he said.
Carlsen said FWP tends to be reactive to bighorn infections rather than proactive. He also suggested the agency direct more money into protecting existing bighorn populations.
The report proposes a number of ways to invest in bighorn sheep, such as incentive payments to livestock owners to switch from sheep to cattle; a cost-share program to provide fencing, guard dogs or to pay a herder; retiring high-risk federal and state sheep grazing allotments; and eliminating the use of goats and sheep to remove weeds on land close to bighorn herds.
FWP has seemed unable to move the needle on protecting bighorn herds. Last year two native herds that utilize the Gardiner Basin north of Yellowstone National Park lost at least 35 sheep, including some trophy rams. On one of the herd’s winter range only six lambs were counted this year; normally it's closer to 20 or 30, said Karen Loveless, an FWP biologist.
Two domestic sheep herds are located nearby, and although Loveless has talked to the landowners about the disease risk to bighorn sheep they “don’t subscribe to the science.”
In situations like that, Carlsen said bighorn advocates need to find a way to enact legislation to protect existing bighorn herds from introductions of domestic sheep on adjacent land.
The inability to boost the Tendoy Mountain herd despite repeated transplants prompted FWP to enact hunting regulations allowing the complete eradication of the 50-animal herd in hopes that would provide a better chance for transplanted sheep to survive. Many believe that once the disease establishes itself in a herd it becomes endemic and proves lethal to the young, which have little or no resistance.
FWP’s attempts to establish new herds have been halted because of the presence of nearby domestic sheep, despite a call in the agency’s own 2010 bighorn sheep management plan to establish five more viable herds across the state by 2020. A frustrated Fish and Wildlife Commission, sending a message to the department, turned down a proposed transfer of Montana sheep to South Dakota in 2014 — the message being if we can’t find room for them here, no one else can have them either.
Is that all there is?
Despite the struggles, Montana’s bighorn sheep numbers have steadily climbed between 1950 and 2010, from just more than 1,000 to about 6,500, thanks in part to aggressive transplanting and establishment of new herds by FWP. Those population figures include sheep from Glacier and Waterton Lakes national parks.
The question now seems to be: Has all of the prime bighorn habitat in Montana been filled? Or is it possible to work with domestic producers and federal and state landowners to provide enough space for bighorn sheep to thrive in areas where they can avoid disease transmission?
“The next discussion is how we sit down with the local shareholders and find the right answers,” said Dave Chadwick, executive director of the Montana Wildlife Federation. “We need to work collaboratively with domestic sheep producers and local communities and get out of this cycle.”
“This is a real conservation opportunity.”