Forest Service seeks your thoughts about sheep in wilderness

The U.S. Forest Service is looking for public comment on issues relevant to sheep grazing in the Weminuche Wilderness.

It’s time again to decide how to use 13 allotments that stretch along the northern edge of Missionary Ridge from Durango to the Pine River, Columbine District Ranger Matt Janowiak said Wednesday.

“We usually do this on 10-year cycles,” Janowiak said. “We do it more often if there are special issues.”

Five allotments are currently assigned and the remainder are vacant, Janowiak said. The solution may be to keep some vacant areas as is and convert the others to forage reserves.

A forage reserve takes an area out of circulation to provide backup in case of need, Janowiak said.

“Reserves give us some flexibility,” he said. “Even in a drought, we’d still have sufficient forage available.”

Janowiak said the Weminuche has been sheep country since the 1870s, even before it became part of San Juan National Forest.

Cam Hooley, the Columbine district’s environmental-issues coordinator, said Wednesday that field inspections have found forage in the Weminuche in good condition.

“Allotments in the Weminuche and around Silverton where sheep graze look pretty good,” Hooley said.

Cattle graze in the Hermosa drainage and in Beaver Meadows, Hooley said. Both species need similar forage although sheep tend to graze above timberline and cattle in forested areas, she said.

Janowiak said a concern in the Weminuche Wilderness is areas where sheep have been bedded year after year.

Seven hundred sheep tend to reduce vegetation to the nub, making it impossible for it to rebound in one year, he said.

Janowiak expects comment on grazing issues from people who frequent the wilderness. The Western Watersheds Project also is likely to weigh in, he said.

The Western Watersheds Project website says its mission is to “protect and restore watersheds and wildlife through education, public policy initiatives and litigation.”

Potential issues include impact of livestock on plant species, watershed conditions, wildlife habitat, including habitat for special-status species such as big horn sheep and Canada lynx and conflicts with recreational uses.

Written comment on grazing in the Weminuche Wilderness will be accepted until March 23. Comments will form the basis for a draft environmental assessment, which will come back for further public comment, Janowiak said.

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