Wild versus domestic

Judge denies 5th injunction request of domestic sheep grazing

A federal judge once again denied a request from an environmental group asking to block domestic sheep grazing in the Gravelly Mountains. The injunction request comes from the Gallatin Wildlife Association and Yellowstone Buffalo Foundation, which was denied for a fifth time since 2015. 

In July 2015, U.S. District Court Judge Brian Morris denied an injunction from the GWA after they first requested a halt to sheep grazing on two allotments in the Gravellys. GWA later sued the U. S. Forest Service “claiming they had failed to analyze the impact of sheep allotments on bighorn sheep and grizzly bears,” according to GWA President Glen Hockett. 


The fight for wild sheep

During an April 2018 Gravelly Landscape Collaborative meeting, Hockett gave a brief presentation about the fight to protect viable populations of big horn sheep in the Greenhorn range, stating bighorns are in trouble. “Across the west, they are in trouble,” he said. “Not just in southwest Montana. The Greenhorn herd is just a portion of the problem.” 

According to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, a viable herd of bighorns consists of 125 sheep. Hockett said 70 percent of Montana herds were below 100 in population and the FWP’s numbers were ‘built on a fallacy.’ “These are not viable herds,” he said. “Where is the science that says 125 bighorns is a viable herd?”

A 2017 report from FWP Wildlife Biologist Dean Waltee stated bighorn populations were down from 2015, but those reports only represent a minimum number of bighorns known alive and not the total population. Waltee said given the remote and geographically diverse area used by the Greenhorn herd, it was certain he did not observe every individual sheep. 

In his report, Waltee stated he received a lot of inquiries of harvest opportunities. In order for a herd to have an established hunting season, that designated herd needs to meet three of four criteria for three consecutive years: 1) a population of at least 75 observable sheep, 2) at least 30 rams: 100 ewes, 3) 30 percent of rams are at least ¾ curl, 4) at least 30 lambs: 100 ewes. Waltee reported the Greenhorn herd had exceed three of the criteria and said a conservative hunting season should be recommended with the intent to propose a limited male harvest opportunity during the upcoming biennium.

Hockett referred to Waltee’s report during the GLC meeting, stating his group was concerned about the proposal to start hunting, adding the herd was not viable based on the criteria and numbers set forth by the Montana Bighorn Sheep Conservation Society. 


Separation and disease

Aside from population numbers, Hockett said the other major factor for wild sheep was separation from domestic sheep; a reasoning for the ongoing battles with domestic sheep grazers and the Forest Service. 

The Helle family has been running sheep in the Gravelly Mountains since the early 1900s and have found themselves in the middle of ongoing litigation and court battles over their two allotments in the Greenhorn range. 

John Helle and his son, Evan, were present at the GLC meeting and asked Hockett how removing domestic sheep would save bighorns from diseases. Hockett and the GWA in their requests for injunctions of the Helle’s grazing allotments argued that bighorns can attract diseases from domestics which in turn threaten their population.

“You’re approach of suing the Forest Service over our sheep allotments is not necessarily going to solve any of the issues you just talked about,” said J. Helle. “Bighorn sheep have struggled for years trying to adapt to western civilization and people are here and there’s a lot more at risk – yeah, maybe the wild sheep populations are at risk but so are the working ranches.”

Helle said working ranches work hard to contribute to open spaces and economics, and to work with various groups to solve issues like this on a scientific level. “I feel your agenda is not necessarily bighorn sheep but getting livestock off the national forest and public lands,” he said. 

Contracting diseases from domestic sheep is what the GWA sees as a huge threat to the wild sheep, but Helle argues otherwise. “Just because a bighorn sheep comes in contact with a domestic doesn’t mean it can get a disease,” he said, adding biologists have stated 70 percent of wild sheep populations are already endemic with pathogens that cause diseases.  “Our sheep are not diseased. Bighorns could pick up a pathogen that could cause a disease but why is it so crucial to get rid of domestic sheep when the pathogens are already endemic in their own populations and those pathogens are carried by other ungulates?”


No end in sight

Having found the Forest Service correctly analyzed bighorn habitat in the range, the agency is still wrapping up reviewing management plans, as requested by a federal court in 2016.

The environmental groups attorney, John Meyer, said they are still deciding how to move forward.

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