Thursday, October 08, 2015

Sheep wars rage on in southwest Montana

by Ben Goldfarb

Last month, on a remote, snow-dusted rise high in Montana’s Gravelly Mountains, I found myself beset by an army of livestock.

The sheep came over the hill in martial lines, a fleecy platoon framed by the teeth of the Madison Range, guard dogs nipping at their cloven heels like irate sergeants. The four-legged troops quickly captured our knoll, and my companions and I retreated to our car to watch the flock tug at the brown grass. Eventually a solitary horseman appeared along the ridgeline and began coaxing the sheep toward lower ground. It was mid-September, and the mountain grazing season had reached its end — for the final time, if conservationists get their way. I had, perhaps, witnessed the last hurrah of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge flock.

From Wayne Hage to Cliven Bundy, Westerners have been clashing over livestock since Gus McCrae and Captain Call first drove cattle into Montana. Even within that proud tradition, however, the current tussle over the Helle & Rebish/Konen flock stands out. Together, the families graze around 8,000 sheep from July to September on seven allotments in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, a gentle but wild swell overlooking the plains of the Madison Valley. The sheep live on private land the rest of the year.
...Grazing also impedes the recovery of bighorn sheep, which are susceptible to contracting pneumonia from their domestic brethren. To avoid devastating outbreaks, wildlife managers strive to prevent wild and domestic sheep from mingling on the range, effectively precluding bighorns from vast swaths of public land. In Montana, the standoff has proved disastrous to bighorn recovery. 

Though the state vowed in 2010 to create five new bighorn herds over a decade, there’s nowhere to stick the ungulates that wouldn’t expose them to disease. The situation has gotten so bad that some officials say Montana would be better off shipping its sheep to South Dakota.

Though bighorn sheep were reintroduced near the Gravelly Mountains in 2002, that herd comprises only 35 animals, far below the 125 that Montana deems a viable unit. Nearby herds are hardly faring better. According to conservationists, that’s because grazing’s giant hoofprint has kept bighorn herds too small and isolated to thrive.

“The question is, are we really going to allocate all this public land to domestic sheep influence?” demands Glenn Hockett, president of the Gallatin Wildlife Association.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

More false science purporting that domestic sheep pass on pneumonia to Bighorns. A snail is the intermediate host for the lung worm and it must be ingested by a grazing ungulate to pass it into the lungs. This is just another attempt to get all grazing use off of the national forests.