A conservation group has bought out one of Ignacio rancher J. Paul Brown’s grazing allotments in the Weminuche Wilderness to reduce the risk his sheep pose to native bighorns, but critics say the issue is still not resolved.
For the past eight years, the U.S. Forest Service has wrestled with whether to continue to allow domestic sheep grazing in the Weminuche, Colorado’s largest wilderness area.
The most recent development happened in 2018, when the Forest Service threw out a previous study that was clear in its determination that bighorns are at a heightened risk for disease in the presence of domestic sheep.
Studies have shown that if the animals come into contact, domestic sheep can pass a deadly bacteria to bighorns, which the native animal can in turn bring back to its herd and potentially cause widespread die-off.
For the past few years, the Forest Service has taken the stance it would wait until clearer science was available, saying “uncertain impacts from potential domestic sheep transmission to bighorn” warrant more study.
But about a year ago, Brown began talks with the National Wildlife Federation, which has a program that pays ranchers to retire controversial grazing allotments throughout the West.
“This approach works when there’s a conflict between a wildlife species and livestock grazing, and when this opportunity makes sense for the rancher and their operation,” said Bob McCready with the NWF.
On Monday, the two sides announced they had reached an undisclosed agreement for an 11,000-acre allotment called Endlich Mesa, considered a high-risk area for domestic sheep and bighorns to come into contact.
For Brown, he said the deal made sense for his operation and family at this time. One of his sons, Levi, is leaving the ranching business, so Brown was able to use some of the money from the buyout to help cover his son’s investments.
“Even though I don’t really like it, in this case, it worked out,” Brown said. “It seemed to be the best thing for us to do.”
As a result of the deal, Brown’s herd will go from three to two bands, a reduction of about 800 sheep. To diversify the ranch, he said the operation will likely invest more in cattle, which don’t pose the same risk to bighorns.
But it’s still unclear what the Forest Service will ultimately decide for Brown’s other allotments on the Weminuche, which total around 40,000 acres.
A spokeswoman with the Forest Service wrote in an email that the vacating of Endlich Mesa does not change the agency’s review of Brown’s herd grazing in the Weminuche.
“We are continuing to collect more data ... for analysis of the risks associated with contact between domestic sheep and Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep for the Weminuche grazing environmental impact statement,” the spokeswoman wrote.
Dan Parkinson, an advocate with Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, said retiring the Endlich Mesa allotment is a step in the right direction, but doesn’t solve the issue of bighorns coming in contact with sheep in other grazing areas.
“Closing Endlich gives the bighorns a little more elbow room, but it doesn’t reduce the greater risk,” he said. “That’s still there.”
The area Brown runs livestock extends from the northern end of Missionary Ridge toward the Pine River, and there’s the potential for habitat overlap for the estimated 500 native bighorns spread out in about three herds.
Parkinson said that already, bighorns are struggling to survive as a result of the domestic sheep there.
“The threat is still there, and the clock is ticking,” he said.
In recent years, values have clashed between ranchers, whose livelihoods depend on grazing on public lands, and conservationists, who are fighting for the long-term survival of bighorn sheep.
But across the West, public land agencies and courts have ruled in favor of taking domestic sheep off the landscape for the betterment of bighorns.
The most significant decision was in 2010, when the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Payette National Forest Service’s decision in Idaho to phase out active sheep permits because of the risk of disease transmission.
More recently, the Bureau of Land Management this year is proposing measures around Gunnison, Hinsdale and Ouray counties that are intended to reduce the risk of the two animals coming in contact.
“The consensus science says that domestic sheep grazing on public lands are a major threat to bighorns,” Parkinson said. “And that separation of the species is required for the bighorns to recover.”
Brown said his family took into account these major rulings elsewhere in the country when deciding to accept the buyout, but that it wasn’t the driving factor.
“That’s one of the reasons I hate to do this,” he said. “I don’t want this idea that we’re capitulating because of some court ruling.”
Brown said the jury is still out on the science of whether domestic sheep transmit diseases to bighorns. And, he said his herders do everything possible to make sure sheep don’t escape or come into contact with the wild animals.
He and his family’s livelihood relies on being able to graze on public land, Brown said. And he said he suspects that for many, the core of the issue is a blanket opposition to any grazing on public lands.
Brown, who is in his late 60s, said he and his wife, Debbie, will continue ranching for a few more years. As for the future, he hopes one of his children or grandchildren will take over the more than 50-year-old operation.
“I want to pass that legacy on,” he said. “But they have to be able to make a living.”