Friday, October 31, 2008

Sheepman appeals to neighbors for help
Forest Service plans to greatly reduce grazing to stop pasteurella spread

Sheepman Ron Shirts asked his neighbors for help here Thursday, Oct. 23, in a sometimes emotional meeting on alleged conflicts between domestic sheep and bighorn.

At issue is a draft Environmental Impact Statement in which the U.S. Forest Service proposes to eliminate all domestic sheep grazing on the Payette National Forest except for one or two allotments.

The reason is the alleged transmission of pasteurella, a form of pneumonia, between domestic and bighorn sheep, said Alan Schroeder, a Boise attorney working with Ron Shirts and his brother Frank on the case.

The comment period continues until Jan. 2, said the attorney.

"Please protest this action," said Joe Shirts, another brother. "Don't do it just because Ron's a nice guy, or just to save his operation alone. He deserves your support because it's the right thing to do."

Four ranchers will lose their grazing permits under the proposed action, Joe Shirts said. They won't be the only losers.

"These ranchers spend $3 million to $4 million in western Idaho each year on feed, fuel, vehicle repairs and other supplies," he said. "They ship 30,000 lambs to market in New York, Los Angeles and other places every year. If that money doesn't come back to Idaho, it will go to Argentina, New Zealand and other production areas."

The Forest Service cannot prove domestic sheep transmit pasteurella to bighorn, Schroeder said. Research indicates bighorn already carry a variety of disease pathogens. More likely vectors of transmission already exist in the Hells Canyon region, including birds.

Telemetry data and herder experience show bighorn rarely mingle with domestic sheep on open range, he said. The potential for transferring disease pathogens between them is remote.

"One must assume that the bighorn is free of the offending pathogens, that there are no other vectors for those particular bugs and that domestic sheep are carriers," Schroeder said. "One also must assume contact actually occurs and that a viable dose of the offending pathogens is transmitted at that time.

"If each of these assumptions exist, you must assume that the pathogens express themselves in the bighorn," he said. "Science shows whether or not an exposed animal actually becomes ill relates to environmental stressors, such as weather, food, predators or others. If the pathogens reveal themselves, the next assumption is that the bighorn will die."

The Shirts brothers developed management strategies to keep their sheep separated from bighorn, increasing the number of herders and guard dogs with each band, Schroeder said.

Best management practices listed in the strategy include notifying the Payette National Forest and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game immediately if bighorn are observed within one mile of the domestic sheep.

"If no contact between bighorns and domestic sheep is suspected or observed, herders may, with the approval of the land management agency involved, alter trailing or grazing routes to avoid contact, and/or haze the bighorn away," the strategy said.

Beyond grazing on the Payette National Forest, domestic sheep are on adjacent private lands, Schroeder said.

Faced with litigation brought by environmentalists, the Forest Service is only willing to require or demand that the sheep rancher guarantee no contact 100 percent, Schroeder said.

Bighorn sheep disappeared from the Hells Canyon region by about 1940. They were reintroduced beginning in the 1970s.

Bighorn are not listed or protected under the Endangered Species Act, Schroeder said.

Staff writer Pat McCoy is based in Boise. E-mail:

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