JACKSON — Jonathan Ratner wasn’t pleased to read a public notice that the Bridger-Teton National Forest is looking to change how it protects wild bighorn sheep from catastrophic diseases spread by domestic sheep.
A former employee of the 3.4-million-acre forest, Ratner now watchdogs the Bridger-Teton for Western Watersheds Project, an advocacy group that’s fought public lands livestock grazing for decades. He sees the national forest’s proposed revision to its 1991 Forest Plan as doing the opposite of what it claims.
“I am revolted by the fact that the Bridger-Teton lied in its scoping notice,” Ratner said. “The average person who doesn’t follow these things carefully, what they would see is, ‘Oh, the Bridger-Teton is doing something good for bighorn sheep.’ That is simply a lie.”
Forest officials dispute that claim, saying the change would protect priority bighorn herds.
But Ratner argues that the forest’s proposed change sets the stage to graze domestic sheep on parts of the Wyoming Range where sheep grazing had previously been “bought out” by the National Wildlife Federation. The nonprofit conservation group paid ranchers to stop grazing in order to eliminate the threat of domestic sheep spreading diseases that can be deadly to nearby bighorn sheep.
Now open to public comment, the Bridger-Teton’s proposed revision to its Forest Plan calls for two changes. One, it removes special protections that restrict development and prohibit restocking domestic sheep on the turf of the Darby Mountain Bighorn Sheep Herd — a “non-core” herd that the state of Wyoming explicitly deemphasizes. The revision would also help ensure protections for four “core” bighorn sheep populations that the state does prioritize: the Jackson, Whiskey Mountain, Targhee and Absaroka herds.
Bridger-Teton Supervisor Tricia O’Connor, who has a background in wildlife biology, said she would not allow domestic sheep to be restocked in proximity to those core, native herds even though the Forest Plan allows for it.
“But I would also say, that’s me making that decision,” O’Connor said. “If we don’t change the Forest Plan, a future supervisor could make a different decision. The beauty from a conservation standpoint, of getting this in the Forest Plan saying we wouldn’t restock them, is that it’s codified.”
Proposed changes to the 30-year-old Forest Plan would not directly authorize domestic sheep grazing near the Darby Herd. That would require a separate proposal and a separate environmental assessment, which might be released around July, according to forest spokeswoman Mary Cernicek.
But the revision does open the door for restocking six allotments bought out in 2012. In the nine years since, woolgrowers have shown an interest in reoccupying the area. The Bridger-Teton was not a party to the deal between ranchers and the federation that left those lands vacant of domestic sheep, and so the forest is not bound to keep them closed.
“Funders of these, they do want to know if they’re going to get conservation out of it,” O’Connor said. “So I sent (sheep rancher Fred Roberts) a letter that said, ‘Here’s what we would do.’ And we pretty much said, we’d leave them vacant and we’d pretty much look at restocking them.”
So the Bridger-Teton, she said, is doing what it said it was going to do.
Meanwhile, Wyoming Stock Growers Association President Jim Magagna has been urging the Bridger-Teton to make the needed changes so that domestic sheep could return to the Roberts allotments. That means changing the Forest Plan, which currently prohibits restocking.
Before giving up on the commercial sheep industry, Magagna himself has struck deals with conservation groups to take his own animals off of Bridger-Teton grazing allotments in the Wyoming Range. But he also believes those types of arrangements are harming the livestock industry.
“In general, we as an organization do not like to see it happen,” Magagna told the News&Guide. “It reduces opportunities for growth or even maintenance of the industry, and it has a negative industry impact. At the same time, we recognize that in the private marketplace those permits have value and we certainly don’t want to deny a permittee the opportunity to recover some of that value when they waive their permits.”
Roberts, who made the deal with the National Wildlife Federation, said that he thinks “it’s a shame” domestic sheep no longer graze his allotments, which were with his family for over a century. He would have preferred to sell to a neighboring woolgrower, but interest was lacking and so he willingly turned to the federation.
“They were good to deal with and the money was right,” Roberts said of the conservation buyer. “My neighbors understood that. It was just a matter of economics.”
When the deal was going down almost a decade ago, Roberts worked with Kit Fischer, the senior manager at the federation’s wildlife conflict resolution program. The Bridger-Teton’s proposal didn’t catch Fischer totally by surprise, though he thought that restocking was unlikely at the time.
“We had our eyes wide open on this,” Fischer said. “I’m still kind of vacillating on whether there’s some good that can come out of this process.”
Codifying protections for the Bridger-Teton’s core herds could be a plus, he said.
“But I think that this is really more of an effort to pry open the issues related to this ‘non-essential’ Darby herd,” Fischer said. “We’ll see whether or not the Forest Service is going to comply with the state of Wyoming, or if they’re going to have the backbone to do their own thing.”
If restocking the former Roberts allotments does proceed, Fischer’s hopeful that there’s room for “middle ground.” Perhaps, he said, they’d only bring domestic sheep back to the areas where they’re least likely to mingle and potentially transmit disease to the Darby herd, which was last surveyed with just 63 animals.
The threat of restocking is making fundraising for livestock grazing buyouts a tougher proposition, Fischer said. Still, the tool is being used with plenty of success.
“We’re working on allotment retirements in New Mexico, Colorado, Idaho, and they’ve largely been viewed as quite beneficial,” Fischer said. “It behooves Wyoming to think more proactively about dealing with conflict issues, and about recognizing grazing allotment retirements as a tool to help transition grazing out of places where maybe it shouldn’t happen long term, whether it’s because of drought or wildlife conflicts or recreational conflicts.”
Ratner, at the Western Watersheds Project, argued that livestock grazing buyouts have benefited the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s flora and fauna over the decades by alleviating conflict.
“We have a little less than a million acres in the (Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem) that have been bought out over the last 30 years,” he said. “They’ve been a major success, and with this one action the Forest Service essentially destroys the ability to utilize that tool for conflict resolution in the foreseeable future.”