Lawsuit filed to protect half of Washington’s bighorn sheep at risk from non-native domestic sheep grazing

Below is the press release. Should rare and recovering native wildlife be given priority on federal public lands? Or should the demands of those who pay $1.35/month per 5 sheep to grazing their non-native domestic sheep destined for slaughter be given priority on public lands?

SPOKANE, WA—Two environmental groups filed a lawsuit in federal court Monday claiming the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest is placing bighorn sheep at high risk of disease outbreaks by authorizing domestic sheep grazing in the vicinity of bighorn herds. The suit, brought by WildEarth Guardians and Western Watersheds Project, asserts that the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest has known of the high risk that domestic sheep grazing poses to bighorn sheep for at least a decade, yet has authorized grazing anyway.

“The Forest Service has known about the high risk to bighorns in this area for over a decade and has refused to take action. We have pleaded with them for years to do something, yet they have just sat by as bighorns died. If the agency tasked with protecting this iconic species won’t do so, we’re here to make sure they do,” said Greg Dyson of WildEarth Guardians.

Domestic sheep carry a pathogen that, when transmitted to bighorn sheep, causes deadly pneumonia in bighorns and reduces lamb survival rates for years. The pathogen—known as Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae—is especially deadly because bighorns and domestic sheep are mutually attracted to each other. Once disease is in a bighorn herd, it can cause low lamb survival for a decade, and members of that herd can easily transmit the disease to nearby bighorn herds. There is no cure or vaccine.

“The science is overwhelmingly clear that the biggest risk to bighorn health is the diseases spread by domestic sheep grazing in and near bighorn habitat,” said Melissa Cain of Western Watersheds Project. “There have been two disease-related incidents in these bighorn herds in recent months. In October, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) killed 12 bighorns from the Quilomene herd due to a domestic ewe commingling with the herd. Less than 2 weeks later, WDFW reported Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae within the Cleman Mountain herd. It is not acceptable for the Forest Service to knowingly allow the high risk to continue.

See the WDFW website for details on the two recent incidents (herehere and here).

Today’s suit centers on seven domestic sheep allotments near the eastern boundary of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. The Forest Service conducted a risk analysis in 2016 determining that these allotments place four bighorn herds at high risk: the Umtanum, Swakane, Cleman Mountain, and Chelan Butte herds.

The lawsuit alleges that the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest continued to authorize domestic sheep grazing despite knowing about the high risk to bighorns as far back as 2010. In addition, the four bighorn herds placed at high risk by the Forest Service’s actions are within 15 miles of each other and two other bighorn herds—the Quilomene and Manson herds—meaning that individual bighorns could easily foray between herds, further spreading disease picked up from the domestic sheep. Together, these bighorn herds make up over half of Washington’s total bighorn sheep population. Another bighorn herd, the Tieton herd, had occupied habitat that was adjacent to these domestic sheep allotments until it suffered a severe outbreak of pneumonia in 2013, which WDFW determined was caused by domestic sheep and led to all 200 of the bighorns in this herd being eradicated.

“The Forest Service is well aware of its legal duties—under the National Forest Management Act and the Wenatchee National Forest Plan—to prevent domestic sheep grazing on public lands from transmitting disease to bighorn sheep. For years, as problems mounted for bighorns, the agency has disregarded these legal duties by authorizing thousands of domestic sheep to graze on high-risk allotments each summer,” stated Lizzy Potter, lead attorney on the case. “We filed suit to hold the Forest Service accountable for these egregious legal violations and to protect half of the bighorn sheep in Washington state.”

Bighorn sheep were wiped out during the era of Western settlement, as Old World pathogens carried by domestic sheep were transmitted to native bighorn sheep. By the early 1900s, bighorns had vanished from several states, with only a few thousand remaining from an estimated historic population of 1.5 to 2 million. Following more than six decades of extensive and costly restoration efforts, bighorn sheep have now been recovered to approximately 5% of their historic population levels and roughly 10% of their historic range.

The groups are represented in the litigation by Lizzy Potter and Laurie Rule of Advocates for the West.

6 thoughts on “Lawsuit filed to protect half of Washington’s bighorn sheep at risk from non-native domestic sheep grazing”

  1. “Should rare and recovering native wildlife be given priority on federal public lands? Or should the demands of those who pay $1.35/month per 5 sheep to grazing their non-native domestic sheep destined for slaughter be given priority on public lands?”

    What an unintelligent summation; but at least you make no attempt to hide your bigotry and bias.

    Why not characterize it as “should litigious legal corporations masquerading as sanctified environmental justice warriors be allowed to persecute morally upstanding, hard working, minority families out of their livelihoods and communities or should we stand up for those who follow in the profession of Jesus”?

    Or how about “should we seek collaborative solutions that preserve local communities and their economies or just preserve species at any expense so that they can be killed for selfish recreation”?

    No wonder we can’t have productive conversations.

  2. It is not just sheep grazing on forests that pose threat of disease transfer, it is any sheep or goat and potentially other domestic and wild animals like mountain goats and llamas. The bighorn sheep in Washington unlike in other parts of the west have home ranges that are mainly on non forest service lands. most of the historic range is located outside of forest boundaries but is unavailable because of development. The placement of bighorn herds so close to or within developed areas means that even if all sheep grazing on forest lands was eliminated, the threat of big horn sheep being exposed to disease will not be eliminated, will there be a state wide ban on sheep goat and llama ownership in areas near bighorn sheep herds?. Big horn sheep use, travel thru and along side private lands and hobby farms or where they are forced to share habitat with other wildlife like elk deer and mountain goat meaning they do not have the best of habitat, leaving them more susceptible to disease. Not to mention the heavy load of recreationists on these public lands since most adjacent lands to bighorn herds is readily available to year round activity, will recreation be the next activity to be eliminated in areas bighorn sheep live?


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