December 12, 2008

Bighorn Sheep Rule Stirs Debate in West

Wall Street Journal

A new federal policy regulating how bighorn sheep are transported across state lines has drawn criticism from state officials and environmentalists in the West. They say it threatens efforts to restore the wild sheep. Associated Press

A new policy issued by the Bush administration for managing fragile populations of bighorn sheep has angered Western environmentalists, hunters and state wildlife managers, who claim it is a move by the outgoing administration to reshape the Western landscape in favor of industry.

Federal officials say the policy -- set out in a Memorandum of Understanding with the Forest Service -- is intended to protect bighorns from disease. But critics say it threatens their decadeslong effort to restore the wild sheep population from near-extinction.

Mark Rey, undersecretary for natural resources with the Department of Agriculture, who helped write the bighorn policy, dismissed the complaints. Officials from several Western states have sent him letters denouncing the policy as an illegal usurpation of state authority. Mr. Rey is reviewing the comments but said he sees no reason to change course.

The new policy requires that all wild bighorn be quarantined and tested for disease by federal labs before they can be moved across state lines by relocation programs designed to protect their populations. Mr. Rey says the current protocol, which leaves testing up to the states, is "hit or miss" and thus not good for the bighorn. "If everything is fine," he said, "why do we see diseases cropping up hither, thither and yon?"

But state officials worry the new policy could slow their efforts to protect the sheep. The crux of the problem, they say, is that domestic sheep too often intrude on bighorn territory -- leading to encounters that, for reasons not fully understood, are often fatal to the wild sheep.

State wildlife workers have tried to protect bighorns by relocating them as needed. They believe holding them in quarantine while federal labs perform blood analysis would slow the process and endanger the animals' health. Wild sheep get stressed easily in captivity.

"It's absolutely unworkable," said Dale Toweill, the wildlife coordinator for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

The federal policy was welcomed by the ranching industry, which raises hundreds of thousands of domestic sheep for wool and meat.

Many ranching families have grazed their sheep on federal lands for generations. In recent years, however, the U.S. Forest Service has begun to revoke some of these grazing permits, out of fear the domestic sheep transmit fatal diseases to wild bighorn. Ranchers complain that there is no scientific proof their sheep are killing the bighorn. They hope the new policy will slow efforts to move wild sheep across habitats, leaving more land open for domestic producers.

"It's finally recognizing the other side," said Stan Boyd, executive director of the Idaho Wool Growers Association. "We think it'll help."

The sheep memo follows several decisions that have angered environmental interests in the West.

Those include regulations paving the way for oil-shale exploration and increased oil and gas leasing near national parks. Some of the decisions could be reversed by the incoming Obama administration. But Mr. Rey and his critics said they don't believe sheep-testing protocols would be a priority.

The Department of Agriculture hasn't written the bighorn-testing protocol, and Mr. Rey said all decisions, including the length of any quarantine, will be open to public comment.

"This is going to be done by people with Ph.D.s in veterinary science," Mr. Rey said. "I don't see it rising to the level of political involvement."