Wednesday, December 3, 2008

States blast feds' sheep rule

The Bush administration is attempting to usurp wildlife management authority from Western states through an end-of-term, under-the-radar move on bighorn sheep, state officials and wildlife advocates charge.

Without consulting or even notifying any state agencies, the U.S. Forest Service and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service have drafted an agreement that would, in effect, take jurisdiction over the transplantation of bighorn sheep on national forests.

That's according to documents provided to the Star-Tribune by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies and the state of Wyoming.

Although the federal action was drafted sometime in September, regional wildlife agencies didn't find out about it until the third week in November, state officials said.

According to the written agreement itself, it was created out of concern for the declining bighorn sheep population in the West. But critics say the real reason for the move is to protect domestic sheep producers, at the expense of bighorns.

Representatives of the Forest Service declined to talk on the record for this story. A spokesman for the agency in Washington, D.C., last week referred the Star-Tribune to a regional office, which then referred it back to the D.C. office. Multiple phone calls to the agency last week and on Monday were not returned.

The Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies is a group of 23 state and provincial wildlife management departments from the American West and Canada. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department is a member.

This association, along with the state of Wyoming individually, responded sharply to the drafted agreement on Monday, because it would require that all wild sheep intended for reintroduction to national forests be tested for diseases by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, among other things.

Reintroduction of bighorns to national forests would also require approval by the Forest Service.

Scathing rebuke

In a letter sent Monday to USDA Undersecretaries Mark Rey and Bruce Knight, the wildlife agencies' association condemned the agreement for being "drafted without input from any state wildlife agency, whose statutory authority to manage resident wildlife is clearly established."

As written, the action "contravenes existing law and policy, is unworkable in day-to-day management of the states' wildlife resources and produces a host of undesirable (and perhaps unintended) consequences," the letter contends.

Member agencies of the group know of no law or regulation providing the Forest Service with the authority to require disease testing of bighorn sheep or any other native resident wildlife, the group argues.

"States have long been acknowledged as having both ownership and management authority of resident wildlife, including its capture and translocation. The general health monitoring and management of bighorn sheep is the responsibility of state wildlife agencies, except for those bighorn sheep populations protected under the Endangered Species Act, and even then, federal authority lies with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, not USDA."

APHIS, the letter continues, also has no jurisdiction over the movements of wild sheep.

"Collectively, we view this (action) as an attempt to usurp state wildlife agency jurisdiction and authority, and we will actively challenge that interference, if deemed necessary," the signatories conclude.

The federal move was also slammed in a separate letter sent to the same undersecretaries from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, signed by the agency's director and the state veterinarian.

"Neither in enabling legislation nor elsewhere in the United States Code is (the U.S. Forest Service) granted explicit authority to supplant or supersede state wildlife management authority on USFS lands," the letter asserts. "Under the auspices of disease control, USFS attempts to bestow through (this interagency agreement) preemptive wildlife management authority over the State where it legally does not exist."

Domestic vs. wild

Bighorn sheep advocates also expressed outrage over the action, citing it as another example of wild sheep losing out to domestic sheep.

"It is another attempt by Mark Rey to run roughshod over state management," said Steve Torbit, regional executive director of the National Wildlife Federation. "It's totally out of balance, the way this is being handled. The livestock bring the diseases in, and then wildlife has to be eliminated in deference to livestock."

Torbit called the move a "power play" by commodity producers, whom the Bush administration has habitually favored in its public land management.

"This is an insult to state authority. It's an insult to wildlife management," Torbit said.

Gray Thornton, president of the Cody-based Wild Sheep Foundation, said his group is "perplexed" by this move by the outgoing administration.

"In many ways it's federal dominance over what is a state resource. It's meddling inappropriately in state sovereignty," Thornton said. "Mr. Rey recognizes the disease risk of domestic contact with wild sheep, but the proposed (action) and other actions appear to place the blame on a valuable public wildlife resource -- wild sheep -- and not on what most agree is the real issue: domestic sheep grazing in historical and occupied wild sheep habitat."

The real problem at hand is that wild sheep become infected by diseases from domestic sheep, Thornton said, and in this regard, Rey is directing his energies toward the "wrong vector."

The federal move was ultimately made to address wild sheep-domestic sheep conflicts in Idaho, not in Wyoming, Thornton said. The issue of where it is appropriate to have bighorns and domestic sheep has been at the center of ongoing controversy and legal battles in Idaho in recent years.

Wyoming developed a successful bighorn sheep working group years ago, Thornton said, which included all interested parties, including domestic sheep grazers, wildlife managers and wild sheep advocates.

Nonetheless, the federal action still affects Wyoming because it takes some management authority away from the state, even though the state is better equipped to manage bighorns and is more knowledgeable about all of the issues related to wild and domestic sheep, he said.

Eric Keszler, spokesman for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, said the Cowboy State's success in managing wild sheep should be acknowledged by the federal agencies, and the state should be left alone when it comes to management decisions about bighorns.

"Additional actions by the federal government are not something that is needed here," Keszler said. "We work very well with (agricultural) producers to avoid conflicts."

Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, agreed that Wyoming has done a good job of addressing concerns about contact between domestic sheep and wild sheep.

"It's all arisen out of a pretty major dispute over in Idaho on the Payette National Forest," Magagna said. "We're fortunate in Wyoming that a number of years ago we formed a bighorn sheep working group and we developed a set of protocols to govern bighorn sheep and domestic sheep, and it has worked pretty well."

In their letter to the Bush administration, Game and Fish Department Director Steve Ferrell and State Veterinarian Walter Cook urged the federal government to continue to defer to the state on wildlife management decisions, as required by law.

"The State of Wyoming has a long-standing claim to primary jurisdiction over wildlife management throughout the State, including USFS lands within its borders," the signatories wrote. "The United States Supreme Court has repeatedly recognized that States possess broad trustee and police powers over wildlife within their jurisdictions and hold primary jurisdiction over the management of fish and wildlife on federal lands unless Congress explicitly declares otherwise."

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