Are domestic sheep really causing Bighorn sheep to die from disease? That’s what domestic sheep ranchers want to know before they agree to work any further with scientists studying and trying to grow the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep population.
At Tuesday’s Mono County Board of Supervisors meeting, Dr. Thomas Stephenson presented a report on the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep recovery program from 1999-2011. His goal was to present strategies to continue to increase population and identify program deficiencies.
In 1999 when the Bighorn sheep were granted emergency endangered status, there were approximately 100 animals in the Sierra Nevada. The following year, the Bighorn were granted full federal endangered status, and today, following the recovery efforts, there are approximately 400 animals in the Sierra Nevada.
“We’re in a lot better shape than we were,” Stephenson said on Tuesday. He added that even without disease, Bighorn sheep populations grow slowly.
“We need to discuss ways to reduce risk,” he continued. “Even though it’s contentious, we have to talk about grazing on the Conway and Mattly ranches.” Stephenson had three suggestions about how the scientists and the ranchers could move forward.
“Perhaps we could adjust the grazing season [of the domestic sheep] so that they aren’t grazing so far into the fall,” he said. “Or perhaps the parcels could be vacated and alternate parcels found.” His last suggestion was to put up a fence to keep the Bighorn and the domestic from comingling.
“Bighorn can get diseases from domestic sheep, but it doesn’t go the other way around,” he said.
Supervisor Larry Johnston, while stating that he certainly didn’t want to the County to be responsible for the Bighorn sheep dying off, pointed out that some people don’t think the disease transmission is happening.
Supervisor Hap Hazard agreed. “The herds aren’t making much headway even with science,” he said. “Maybe the herds just aren’t supposed to be here.”
Much of the recovery science has been centered on the translocation of Bighorn from one area to another to help grow populations where numbers are low.
“Your presentation mostly addresses disease issues, which we can’t understand,” Hazard continued. “The higher death rate for the Bighorn is the kill rate from translocation. The Bighorn are not as fragile as public relations is putting out.”
Stephenson posited out that Bighorns in captivity, that are housed with domestic sheep, are animals that end up dying. If Bighorn are housed with other animals such as horses, the death rate is much lower.
“There has never been a die-off from domestic sheep grazing in the Northern Unit,” argued Marianne Leinassar of the F.I.M. Corporation, a family-owned sheep ranch. “The Bighorn carry their own diseases, too, and are trying to survive in a really tough environment. There are no reports tying Bighorn sheep loss to domestic sheep. Broad sweeping statements are unfair to our industry. I don’t want to hurt Bighorn sheep, but I want to stay in business.”
The Northern Recovery Unit referenced by Leinassar begins at Mt. Gibbs and goes north to Twin Lakes. It includes the Conway and Mattly ranches noted by Stephenson.
F.I.M. Corporation is owned and operated by Fred Fulstone (Leinassar is his daughter), and has already lost some of its grazing parcels due to Bighorn sheep. In sheepherder speak Leinassar explained they had lost 3 bands … each band is made up of 1,000 sheep.
“The supposition that Bighorn sheep will die because of domestic sheep is false,” Leinassar added firmly.
Supervisor Tim Hansen, who had sponsored discussion of the agenda item, asked Stephenson, “At what point are you liable for exposing a subspecies to more risk through translocation?” The reason the Sierra Nevada Bighorn are considered endangered is because they are said to be a subspecies that is different from the average Bighorn sheep found in the Rockies and elsewhere.
“The livelihood, way of life and culture [of the ranchers] is being trashed,” Hansen continued. “For you [Stephenson] to invoke rules and restrictions is ridiculous. I don’t want to beat you up but these things need to be talked about.”
Hansen also added, in reference to the predator risks that Bighorn sheep also deal with, “You should scrap the whole program if you can’t afford hunters [to kill the predators].”
Supervisor Johnston asked Leinassar which of Stephenson’s three mitigation options she would prefer if she couldn’t win the disease argument.
“A fence around Mattly could work,” Leinassar conceded.
Further discussions, however, will need to be had before anything moves forward and the Board took no action on Tuesday.