From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 3, Number 9 - May 29, 2003
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Double sheep numbers or close allotments?

by Cat Urbigkit

The Big Piney Ranger District of the Bridger-Teton National Forest received comments representing a wide variety of views on domestic sheep grazing in the Wyoming Range in response to its call for public comment on a scoping statement.

While there were the usual letters detailing a list of issues to be addressed, and some letters calling for the permanent closure to livestock grazing, this time the federal agency also received letters supportive of keeping a viable domestic sheep outfit operating on national forest lands.

The Forest Service has expressed its intent to prepare an environmental impact statement to determine if livestock grazing of five domestic sheep bands will continue to be authorized in the Wyoming Range Allotment Complex.

This allotment-planning process has been the subject of considerable controversy since 1999, when the Wyoming Game and Fish Department submitted a letter proposing that allotments be closed to sheep grazing or the amount of grazing be reduced, citing concerns with the compatibility of domestic sheep and bighorn sheep. Since then, the state wildlife agency has repeated the same concerns, and has been joined by environmental groups and others.

The EIS will examine an alternative to continue current livestock management, one that separates bighorn sheep from domestic sheep by closing most of four allotments to domestic sheep grazing and knocking sheep numbers down to two bands from the five currently permitted. Another alternative would simply close the area to livestock grazing entirely.

Several comment letters originating in Jackson called for prohibiting domestic sheep grazing or closing allotments.

Jim Laybourn of Jackson wrote, "Domestic sheep are, in my opinion, the most dangerous domestic animal to public land."

Laybourn added, "... besides, it's a dying industry which is not really important to the local economy in the way that forest health and healthy wildlife are and always will be."

Richard Klene of Jackson wrote: "I am concerned that any grazing by domestic sheep, much less an increase in that grazing, will do damage that cannot be repaired in generations."

A letter co-authored by the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance and Wyoming Outdoor Council cited a Jackson Hole News and Guide editorial calling for the closure of the northern allotments to domestic sheep grazing.

The Greater Yellowstone Coalition also wrote a letter on its own, urging the Forest Service to consider a full range of alternatives including one "which allows for ecosystem restoration following past livestock grazing but prohibits future grazing."

The GYC letter requests the federal agency consider a variety of issues, from cutthroat trout to water quality, and requested an accounting of the cost to taxpayers of predator control efforts on the allotments, as well as "complete documentation" of any past grazing-permit violations.

"Just because (the forest plan) assumes the areas are suitable for grazing does not necessarily mean that this is currently the case," the GYC letter stated.

In addition, according to GYC, "It is ultimately reasonable to withhold grazing from all riparian areas," and requested the EIS include an alternative addressing this idea.

But those opposed to domestic-sheep use weren't the only ones to get their comments in, as the Forest Service heard from supporters as well.

The Wyoming Wool Growers Association asked for an increase in the number of permitted domestic sheep in the allotment complex, noting that historically, more than 20,000 head of ewes and lambs ranged through the area.

According to WWGA, the "Forest Service has never documented any problems directly attributable and scientifically validated as being due to sheep grazing within this allotment complex."

WWGA contended that issues such as conflicts with bighorn sheep and cutthroat trout "are simply surrogate issues by the WG&F Department, and others, to move forward an 'anti-livestock,' and in particular, an 'anti-domestic sheep' agenda.

Wyoming Department of Agriculture Director John Etchepare wrote a letter supportive of continued sheep grazing, noting livestock grazing can be a valuable management tool.

Etchepare wrote: "Spec-ulation based upon ungrounded fears should not be the basis of proposed decisions. The facts are that bighorn sheep and domestic sheep have co-existed in this study area for decades."

Etchepare also pointed out that grazing "contributes to the preservation of open spaces, the visual beauty of the area, and the traditional image of the historic rural landscapes of Wyoming and the West," while in contrast, "reduced livestock grazing can have disastrous effects on both our environment and social values."

Etchepare added that declines in domestic sheep grazing should be reversed: "We recommend the number of sheep on these allotments be doubled."

Sublette County Farm Bureau wrote about its concern with the cultural loss associated with the erosion of migratory domestic-sheep outfits and questioned whether the Forest Service planned to write an EIS for every grazing permit renewal from now on.

Les Henderson of Rock Springs, a former WG&F Commissioner, wrote: "There should be no reduction of livestock grazing in the subject allotments. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department should not be allowed to use mountain sheep as a device to eliminate livestock grazing.

"The decline in mountain sheep numbers is due to predation by mountain lions, coyotes, wolves and other predators," Henderson wrote. " The WG&F Department has deliberately increased predator populations. Their objective is to decrease game populations and then blame the decrease in game on livestock grazing."

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