Wednesday, February 13, 2008

ICL scolds Otter for bighorn sheep policy

Environmental group calls it a 'top down approach'

By Matt Christensen
Times-News writer

The state is creating an environment for more lawsuits over bighorn sheep, the Idaho Conservation League said in a letter mailed this week to Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter.

The governor is using a "top down approach" to manage Idaho's bighorns, the group wrote, by asking the state departments of Fish and Game and Agricul-ture to develop a plan to keep the species separate. ICL wants the public to have a say in developing a policy.

"Instead of telling the public what is best for a few, the state should ask the public to roll up their sleeves and craft a workable solution," wrote John Robison, ICL's public lands director.

The governor's office had yet to receive the letter Tuesday afternoon, said Jon Hanian, Otter's press secretary, and so could not comment.

However, Otter is expected to make an announcement soon on the state's bighorn policy, which state agency officials say is mostly finished.

Following a year of lawsuits and political posturing over bighorns, the plan is likely to be contentious.

A judge closed grazing allotments last year after environmental groups sued, saying massive bighorn die-offs happened after contact with disease-carrying domestic sheep.

The governor quietly asked the state agencies to find short-term solutions before sheep are turned out on grazing allotments this spring - and before more lawsuits are filed.

Anti-grazing group Western Watersheds Project has hinted at suing the U.S. Forest Service if it doesn't do more to protect bighorns in the South Hills. Southern Idaho sheep ranchers fear a judge could close allotments there.

Cassia County commissioners and sheep ranchers have asked Otter to remove bighorns from federally managed grazing lands in southern Idaho. But state officials say the anticipated plan will likely leave bighorns in the area and include measures to keep the species from mingling, including shooting sheep that interact.

Meanwhile, Otter has formed a working group of state agencies, ranchers and environmentalists to form a long-term state policy. Committee members have said ranchers and the environmental groups are having a hard time finding common ground.

Bighorn populations have declined since their reintroduction to the state in the 1970s. In 1990, the state had about 6,500 bighorns. Today, the number is closer to 3,500. Scientific field studies are yet to prove domestic sheep are to blame for the die-offs, but there is strong evidence that indicates bighorns die from pneumonia carried by domestic sheep.

Matt Christensen may be reached at 735-3243 or at

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