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Judge Protects Idaho Wild Bighorn Sheep, Restricts Domestic Grazing

A federal judge upheld a U.S. Forest Service decision to restrict domestic sheep grazing in order to protect wild bighorn sheep from disease. (Craig Gehrke/The Wilderness Society)
A federal judge upheld a U.S. Forest Service decision to restrict domestic sheep grazing in order to protect wild bighorn sheep from disease. (Craig Gehrke/The Wilderness Society)
March 9, 2016

McCALL, Idaho - Conservation groups are cheering a recent court decision that limits domestic sheep grazing in order to protect wild bighorn sheep in Idaho.

A judge from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the U.S. Forest Service's decision to cut back on domestic sheep grazing by 70 percent in certain parts of the Payette National Forest because the domestic sheep carry a severe form of pneumonia that doesn't hurt them but is deadly to native bighorns.

As of 2010, said Craig Gehrke, director of the Idaho office of The Wilderness Society, the wild bighorn population was thought to be down by 90 percent from historic levels.

"There used to be tens of thousands in Idaho. Now we're down to a couple thousand statewide," Gehrke said, "and so since the white settlers came here with domestic sheep, there's been thousands of bighorn dying throughout the state."

The original Forest Service decision canceled grazing permits for 10,000 head of sheep on public land. The Idaho Wool Growers Association sued, arguing that the federal government abused its powers. The industry claims that a quarter of the domestic sheep business is at risk if decisions such as this are replicated across the country.

The wool growers also wanted to immunize the wild sheep in order to preserve domestic grazing, but Gehrke said it can't be done.

"The domestic folks have argued that they needed more time to develop a vaccine," he said. "The problem is (that) the idea of trying to capture bighorns and inoculate them would be impossible. This is some of the most rugged country in North America."

There are two primary populations of wild bighorn sheep in the Payettes - one in Hells Canyon and another in the Salmon River Mountains.

The decision is online at cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov.

Suzanne Potter, Public News Service - ID