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Agreement ends domestic sheep grazing on 100,000 acres near Silverton

Bacteria carried by livestock pose serious threat to Colorado’s bighorn sheep population
A family of bighorn sheep graze near Coal Bank Pass. The holder of permits to graze domestic sheep, which can pass herd-threatening illnesses onto bighorns, recently agreed to waive his grazing rights on land surrounding Silverton. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

For over a century, domestic sheep have grazed a 101,676-acre allotment of public land in the San Juan Mountains surrounding Silverton to the north, east and south. Ernie Etchart, a Montrose-based rancher, holds 10 permits that allow his sheep to forage the high country there each summer.

The animals Etchart brings to the alpine tundra can carry diseases capable of devastating the native bighorn population.

However, Etchart and the National Wildlife Federation announced Wednesday that the family would waive their grazing rights in exchange for fair compensation, removing domestic sheep from the landscape indefinitely.

The Bureau of Land Management administers five of the permits and the U.S. Forest Service administers the other five. The agreement, brokered with the help of NWF’s Wildlife Conflict Resolution Program Manager Bob McCready, compensates the Etcharts for their permits at what McCready said was a fair market value.

In exchange, Etchart will waive the grazing rights back to the federal agencies, which will agree not to reissue them as long as a significant risk of contact between the domestic and native sheep populations exists.

Montrose-based sheep rancher Ernie Etchart has agreed to waive grazing rights on 10 allotments comprising 101,676 acres surrounding Silverton in exchange for fair market-value compensation. (Courtesy of Terry Meyers)

Etchart did not respond to requests for comment, but McCready estimated the rancher had “several thousand” sheep on the allotments in the summer.

The San Juans West bighorn herd, which grazes in the mountains north of Silverton, comprises an estimated 400-500 animals and sits in the top tier of the state’s herds. The latest Colorado Parks and Wildlife herd management plan stated that it “represents one of only a few indigenous, native bighorn populations which have not been substantially supplemented with transplants.”

Pathogens carried by domestic sheep, specifically a pneumonia-causing bacteria, are considered the greatest factor limiting the growth of the states bighorn population.

“Domestic sheep carry bacteria, which, if they are transmitted to bighorn sheep, can cause respiratory disease in bighorn sheep and all-age die-offs within the herd that can take decades to recover,” said Terry Meyers, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society.

Invoking an oft-repeated turn of phrase, Meyers called the situation “a ticking time bomb.”

To prevent a potential explosion of disease, CPW has euthanized bighorns observed in contact with domestic sheep. In 2016, the agency destroyed five bighorns observed mingling with Etchart’s livestock.

Meyers warns that the waiver of grazing rights announced Wednesday is not a totally thorough solution. There are still 10 other permits that threaten the San Juans West Herd, he said, calling the agreement one piece of the bigger puzzle.

Still, the agreement is “unrivaled” in its scale, according to McCready.

The organization has pursued this mechanism of conservation for over 20 years.

“We've never done one of these agreements that included that many grazing permits,” McCready said.

This is not the first time the National Wildlife Federation has pursued this solution in Southwest Colorado. In 2020, the nonprofit struck a similar deal with Ignacio rancher J. Paul Brown.

Ignacio rancher J. Paul Brown accepted a similar grazing waiver agreement in 2020, although he now says he wished he hadn’t. (Jerry McBride//Durango Herald file)

Brown was compensated an estimated $82,500 to waiver his grazing rights on 11,150 acres north of Durango in the Weminuche Wilderness. He said he could not provide an estimate of fair market value of Etchart’s permits, but said “to me, they’re worth our whole livelihood.”

“It’s sad that he’s (Etchart) having to do that,” Brown said. “He’s felt like the people of Silverton were really hateful and didn’t want him there.”

McCready, on the other hand, is dispassionate about the politics surrounding the sometimes-controversial topic of bighorn conservation.

“I don't want to say that all parties would have chosen this situation,” he said. “But given the difficult situations facing the agencies, facing the ranching family and facing us, who are concerned with bighorn sheep conservation, this is a very good outcome.”

In a news release, Etchart said the allotments were “good ones” for the sheep operation.

“At the end of the day, this was a business decision for us – it was an opportunity we felt like we needed to pursue and it will allow us to diversify our operation,” he said.


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