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Grazing deal offers promise for bighorns

Bighorn sheep have been seen along Colorado Highway 145 in San Miguel County near Sawpit. Drivers are cautioned to watch out for the wildlife. (Courtesy San Miguel County Sheriff)

It might surprise many that bighorn sheep were perhaps the most abundant big game species in Colorado before European settlement. Or maybe not so surprising, given the preponderance of bighorn sheep images on historic rock art.

Today though, bighorn sheep are just a tiny fraction of historic numbers and severely limited from their traditional range. But thanks to an unprecedented effort by the National Wildlife Federation and bighorn sheep advocates, over 100,000 acres of high country in the San Juan Mountains around Silverton could once again welcome bighorn sheep in coming years.

Like many big game species, bighorns were decimated by wanton hunting in the late 1800s, but unlike elk and deer, have not been recovered to abundant populations. Colorado Parks and Wildlife estimates about 7,500 bighorns roam the state today, a number largely unchanged from 100 years ago, but up from the nadir of only a couple thousand in 1970. Biologists estimate perhaps 20 times as many bighorn populated Colorado in the 1800s.

Why the failure to rebound from historic lows the same as deer and elk? Bighorn sheep are unfortunately extremely susceptible to a deadly respiratory disease transmitted from domestic sheep herds. Where bighorns and domestic sheep intermingle, the outcome often is a significant die-off of bighorn herds.

Hence, wildlife managers aggressively work to maintain separation between bighorns and domestic sheep. With domestic sheep grazing allotments scattered across the high country in the San Juans, that focus on separation effectively corrals bighorns into a limited fragment of their historic habitat.

Disappointingly, when bighorns foray out from their core habitat and cross paths with domestic sheep, they are eliminated and euthanized by CPW to prevent wide-ranging individuals from bringing disease back to the larger herd. It’s an unfortunate preventive measure to safeguard the larger population.

Bighorn advocates have long recognized this policy of separation offers tenuous long-term protection. Disease-transmission events have repeatedly led to major die-offs of bighorn herds.

A permanent solution for the benefit of bighorns is to remove domestic sheep from prime bighorn sheep habitat, and effectively drop the administrative fence that confines bighorns to unnaturally limited portions of their habitat.

That’s where the National Wildlife Federation’s conflict reduction program comes into play. NWF offers to purchase grazing allotments from sheep ranchers at a negotiated fair market value, and then coordinates with the Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management for permanent retirement of those allotments from domestic grazing. It’s a financial win for the ranchers, and a biological win for bighorns.

The recently announced deal retires sheep grazing from across 100,000 acres in the high country surrounding Silverton, and helps to open up a large tract of additional habitat across the western San Juans to native bighorns. It builds off a smaller allotment retirement completed a few years ago in the Weminuche on Endlich Mesa.

The federal agencies that manage domestic sheep grazing on our public lands are loathe to take unilateral action to remove or reduce grazing for the benefit of bighorns because the sheep industry retains substantial political clout. Environmental reviews of domestic sheep grazing in the Weminuche and around Engineer Pass have stagnated for almost a decade owing to the Forest Service’s and BLM’s reluctance to take administrative action. Finding a private sector solution with a nonprofit wildlife organization paying ranchers for the retirement of high conflict sheep allotments undoubtedly comes as a relief to agency managers.

The San Juan grazing allotment retirement finally offers a break in that deadlock, and could lead to a resurrection of native bighorn populations across the San Juans. More details are available at https://www.nwf.org/Latest-News/Press-Releases/2023/11-8-23-Etchart-Allotment-Retirement.

Mark Pearson is Executive Director at San Juan Citizens Alliance. Reach him at mark@sanjuancitizens.org.