Management practices for bighorn sheep in Colorado have been called into question after a spike in euthanizations this summer in the high country of the San Juan Mountains.
In 2009, the state adopted a protocol that mandates any wild bighorns that come into contact with domestic sheep herds must be euthanized. Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the state agency in charge of wildlife management, renewed the measure in 2014.
The justification, the division argues, is that bighorn sheep can bring back to its herd a bacteria that can be transmitted during mating. In the spring, newborn lambs can be infected with pneumonia-type symptoms, causing die-off. Cattle and other livestock do not carry the same threats.
“When you have the lambs dying, it’s hard to build a population,” said CPW spokesman Joe Lewandowski. “As wildlife managers, we look at populations, not individual animals. In this case, we know an individual animal could spread disease to the larger herd, and then we have a bigger problem.”
Since its inception, CPW has rarely had to pull the trigger on the protocol in the San Juan Mountains. Lewandowski said the division euthanized just one bighorn in the last five years.
However, this summer the division was forced to kill six wild bighorn sheep. In the rest of the state, only one bighorn was put down for coming in contact with domestic sheep.
The uptick in euthanizations has reinvigorated tensions among varying interests of public land users, especially as a final decision for the future of sheep grazing in the Weminuche Wilderness looms.
Deadly encountersAccording to Lewandowski, the first euthanasia occurred April 24 and was an anomaly. A 2-year-old bighorn wandered into a domestic sheep pen on a property near Turtle Lake, a few miles northwest of Durango, and encountered a Churro sheep.
The following two incidents involved wild rams coming into contact with domestic sheep, all from the same grazing permit holder, Ernie Etchart, a herder out of Montrose. Etchart did not return calls seeking comment.
On Aug. 21, CPW received a report from a herder that three bighorns were among a fairly large flock of domestic sheep near Placer Gulch, northeast of Silverton on Bureau of Land Management land.
“Our officers went up there, and we had to take out two rams about 2 years old, and one adult ewe (female),” Lewandowski said.
Twelve days later, when Etchart’s sheep were supposed to be off a Forest Service grazing allotment on Black Bear Pass, three domestic sheep accidentally left behind happened upon two wild rams.
The two wild animals, both about 1½ years of age, were killed. Under the current Forest Service permit system for grazing, there is no penalty for leaving domestic sheep on an allotment past the allowed time.
“This is not something we want to do or like to do,” said Lewandowski. “But it’s smart management. Our job is to protect a population, and this isn’t going to affect the overall population.”
Grazing on public landsJohn Mumma, who retired as director of Colorado’s Division of Wildlife (now CPW) in 2000, said the division’s protocol is “a prescription for disaster for the wild sheep.”
Now living in Durango, Mumma said when the Division of Wildlife and State Parks merged in 2011, the agency “became such a political animal that they’re not standing up for the rights of wildlife.”
“When these instances of contact occur on public land, I think the land management agencies have an obligation to ensure wild sheep are able to stay on the mountain and not the other way around,” Mumma said.
By the early 1900s, only a small number of native sheep remained in Colorado, decimated by hunting, disease and habitat loss. Since then, a decades-long effort to restore the species has resulted in a population estimated at 7,000 statewide.
The area from the southern edge of Coal Bank Pass, the Weminuche Wilderness to the east, the San Luis Valley to the west and Ouray to the north is home to about 2,000 bighorns, spread throughout various herds.
“Overall, populations down here are holding their own,” Lewandowksi said.
Terry Meyers, executive director for Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society, said those herds will never thrive as long as domestic sheep create an invisible barrier to habitat.
“Young rams, in particular, tend to wander when those herds start doing better,” Meyers said. “And we would like to limit those interactions so they don’t have to remove that many wild sheep a year, and we’d like to do that by effective separation.”
While some individuals and activist groups have called for the complete phasing out of domestic sheep on public land, Meyers and others suggest compromises that include more strict boundaries on when and where domestic sheep are allowed to graze.
However, Bonnie Brown, executive director for the Colorado Wool Growers Association, said livelihoods depend on the right to use the natural resources on public lands, and closing off or forcing herders to move could be detrimental.
“Our industry feels we’re getting the short end of the stick when the BLM or Forest Service tries to eliminate grazing,” Brown said. “Those lands are multi-use, and the permittees have a right to be out there.”
Almost 200,000 livestock roamed the San Juans in 1920. However, the presence of domestic sheep dramatically decreased over the past 100 years. The latest records show that in 2013, just 6,100 sheep forage the area in question.
And though the grazing fee for five sheep increased to $2.11 a month in March, costs for the use have been chronically low. For the same amount of sheep, private interests charge around $20 a month.
“I’m not saying the situation with bighorns isn’t a problem,” Brown said. “But we need to look at options that keep those allotments viable and make sure bighorns are going to be safe.”
Final decision comingThe renewed conflict comes just months before Matt Janowiak, district ranger for the Columbine District, is set to announce the final decision for the future of grazing in the Weminuche Wilderness.
In the 760-square-mile wilderness, Colorado’s largest wilderness area, about 166,700 acres on 13 grazing allotments (seven vacant) extend from the northern end of Missionary Ridge toward the Los Pinos River.
The Forest Service’s proposed action allows the continued use of six active grazing allotments, with nearly 45,000-acres of habitat overlap, and adjusts boundaries the agency says will limit interactions with native bighorn.
Yet a recent decision in the Payette National Forest in Idaho could have ramifications.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in March upheld a 2010 Payette National Forest Service decision to phase out 70 percent of active sheep grazing permits.
The court found “overwhelming scientific consensus that there is a risk that the intermingling of domestic sheep and bighorn sheep would result in a deadly outbreak of pneumonia,” Wildlife News reported.
Janowiak said he must consider the court ruling in the final decision for the Weminuche Wilderness, which could be announced in January. He said public comments favored phasing out grazing, but not by a large amount.
“This is part of nature, which is random and chaotic at times,” he said of the six euthanizations this summer.
For now, wildlife managers, operating under the current protocol, encourage anyone who witnesses a bighorn coming into contact with a domestic sheep to report it.
“The whole thing is completely backwards,” Mumma said. “It’s a ridiculous agreement: In order to save wild sheep, we’re going to have to kill wild sheep.”
This article has been updated to clarify the position of Terry Meyers, executive director of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society, on domestic sheep management, and to include statewide numbers for bighorn euthanizations that were provided on Wednesday.[email protected]