CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — A state lawmaker wants the option to remove a small herd of wild bighorn sheep from U.S. Forest Service lands in southeastern Wyoming if necessary to protect local ranchers whose sheep graze there.
Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, said he hopes the state won't have to remove about 40 wild bighorns from the Encampment River canyon in Carbon County. Yet he plans to ask a legislative committee later this month to endorse his proposal in case it's needed.
Hicks said this week he regards his bill as insurance against the possibility that the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, a Laramie conservation group, is successful in its pending federal lawsuit challenging a Forest Service decision to allow continued domestic sheep grazing in the area.
The Biodiversity Conservation Alliance filed suit this spring saying a 2006 Forest Service decision to allow grazing threatens to allow domestic sheep to pass pneumonia or other diseases to the bighorns. The bighorns are descendants of sheep the state transplanted into the area in the 1970s.
Hicks said ending domestic sheep grazing in the area would devastate a handful of longtime family ranching operations. He said he intends his bill to ensure that the state retains control, "rather than allow litigious environmental organizations to try to use the court system to manage both the land and the wildlife populations in the state of Wyoming."
Sheep ranchers in Idaho recently filed a federal lawsuit challenging a Forest Service decision there to cut domestic sheep grazing to protect bighorns in response to a similar lawsuit from environmentalists.
Hicks is scheduled to present the bill to the Joint Agriculture, State and Public Lands and Water Resources Interim Committee at its Sept. 25 meeting in Hulett. It could go to the Legislature for consideration early next year.
Duane Short, wild species program director for the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, said his group believes it's unfortunate that wildlife management decisions are being made by the Wyoming Legislature.
"We're a science-based organization, and prefer to listen to independent scientists who only look at scientific facts and don't have any political dog in the fight and make decisions on what's best for the wildlife," Short said. "We don't find that exterminating bighorn sheep, or allowing them to be exposed to domestic sheep that carry diseases that can kill wild sheep, is a wise management decision, regardless of who's making it."
Short said his group's decision to go to court wasn't inspired by the Idaho litigation.
John Emmerich, deputy director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, said the department is satisfied with the current Forest Service sheep management. He said there hasn't been any problem with disease transmission between domestic sheep and bighorns because the closest domestic sheep allotment is about five miles from the canyon where the bighorns live.
Sheep ranchers, advocates for wild sheep as well as the state of Wyoming have brokered a standing agreement over the last dozen years to help avert possible conflicts between wild and domestic sheep. It generally calls for sheep ranchers to stay out of the state's prime bighorn country in the northwest, and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department doesn't propose transplanting bighorns into prime domestic sheep areas such as the Wyoming Range, on the state's western flank.
Kevin Hurley, part-time executive director of the Wyoming Wild Sheep Foundation, is retired from the state game department and has chaired the domestic sheep-bighorn sheep interaction working group.
"I think in this case, Biodiversity Conservation Alliance is challenging saying, 'hey, that's federal land, and federal law supersedes any feel-good type, handshake agreements that have been hammered out in Wyoming,'" Hurley said. "Well, there's many of us who still think a handshake stands for something. We came to agreement, and we're abiding by that agreement."
Renny MacKay, spokesman for Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, said Wednesday the state intervened in the lawsuit to, "defend our right to manage wildlife and protect the viability of domestic sheep producers."