Thursday, February 26, 2009

Idaho counties could have final say on bighorns

Idaho's county commissioners would have the final say on transplanting bighorn sheep in the state under two bills introduced Monday in the Senate.

The bills, sponsored by Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, come in response to a Payette National Forest plan to remove domestic sheep grazing from wild bighorn sheep habitat in Hells Canyon and elsewhere to prevent the transmission of diseases that kill the bighorn.

The plan has angered sheep ranchers and Idaho lawmakers who have no power to stop the U.S. Forest Service. So instead, the bills require the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to get certification that not only bighorn sheep but deer, elk, moose, antelope and other big game that are transplanted or relocated in the state have been tested by the Idaho Department of Agriculture.

It also would require Fish and Game to get approval from ranchers who graze in the area before they transplant bighorns.

Finally, the bills would place in state law the existing Fish and Game policy to move or kill any bighorn sheep that move into an area where domestic sheep are grazed.

"I believe there is room for both of them," said Pearce. "But if I have to make a choice I have to make it for people."

Earlier this session, one of the ranchers, Ron Shirts, told lawmakers he is frustrated that the Payette action overrules a 1997 agreement between the state, the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep and others that allowed transplanting of bighorns into Hells Canyon. The agreement said the bighorns would not be used as a pretense to force the ranchers to quit grazing on federal land.

"I think if you sign an agreement you stand by it," Pearce said.

But the Nez Perce Tribe, the Wilderness Society and other groups that were not party to that agreement - especially the Western Watersheds Project - went to court to force the Forest Service to make the ranchers remove their sheep.

No hearings are scheduled yet, but Senate Resources Chairman Sen. Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow, said he wanted to make sure disease experts from both in-state and out can testify.

"I'm not inclined to support retribution," Schroeder said.

He also wanted to make sure the bills don't hurt collaborative talks led by Republican U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo.

Idaho Department of Fish and Game officials said they would not comment until the agency's commissioners take a position later this week.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

No comments: