A battle on the steep slopes of the Snake and Salmon river canyons that pits one of Idaho's most iconic wild animals against one of the state's historic industries is inching toward a conclusion.
Managers of the Payette National Forest are faced with what looks like a stark choice between preserving majestic bighorn sheep or reducing and maybe even eliminating grazing by domestic sheep on much of the forest. Years of deliberation, research and political maneuvering appear to be tilting in favor of the wild sheep and at the expense of a handful of ranching families with decades-long ties to the land.
The complex issue boils down to a simple reality in the eyes of wild sheep advocates and game and land managers. When wild bighorns and their domestic cousins mix, the bighorns die from pneumonia. Scientists don't know all the hows or whys. But game and land managers say the science is clear enough for them to proclaim the two species should be kept apart.
"When you put domestics and bighorns together, the bighorns die. We don't need to know any more than that. It is clear we have to have separation," said Keith Lawrence, director of the Nez Perce Tribe's wildlife department.
To that end, managers on the Payette National Forest are working on a plan that attempts to keep domestic sheep from commingling with bighorns. The preferred alternative of the plan draft would reduce sheep grazing on the forest by about 60 percent. Other alternatives call for steeper cuts and some allow more liberal grazing. Many environmental groups and bighorn advocates favor an alternative that ends sheep grazing or one that reduces grazing even more.
The ranchers say if the preferred alternative is selected, it will spell doom for their livelihoods.
"For Christ sakes, it puts me out of business," said Mick Carlson, a Riggins-area sheep rancher who has grazing allotments on the Nez Perce and Payette national forests. "It isn't just a little stroke of the brush, it's the whole damn deal. It puts me clean out of business. I won't have any range whatsoever."
Margaret Soulen Hinson, whose family also runs sheep on the Payette, said the plan would essentially put all of the sheep ranchers who use the Salmon River Canyon and Hells Canyon out of business.
Like most complex natural resource issues, there is some scientific debate. Researchers at the University of Idaho Caine Veterinary Teaching Center dispute that domestic sheep are to blame for spreading disease to bighorns. They say there is not definitive proof that the pathogens carried by domestic sheep are being transmitted to wild sheep. Marie Bulgin, director of the center, believes bighorns themselves are carrying the disease germs that cause the pneumonia and they likely contract it when they become stressed from environmental conditions such as drought.
"I've got to tell you, it's their own bugs that are killing them and their own bugs will continue to kill them when they take domestic sheep off of the range. But then it will be too late for the domestic sheep industry."
But Bulgin is in the minority. Other scientists cite several studies that have placed domestic and wild sheep together, and those experiments almost always result in dead bighorns. Subramaniam Srikumaran, a professor at Washington State University who goes by Dr. Shri, recently completed a study where he took a pathogen from four domestic sheep and tagged it with a genetic marker. He then reintroduced the tagged germ to the domestic sheep. Over the course of months he gradually mixed the four domestic sheep with four tame bighorns.
When the two species were kept about 50 feet apart from each other, the wild sheep remained healthy. After the sheep were separated only by a chain-link fence, two of the wild sheep picked up the tagged pathogen and one of them developed pneumonia. Next, the animals were all put in the same pen, and the bighorns started dying of pneumonia. Tests showed the disease developed from the same pathogen that he tagged and grew in the domestic sheep.
"So this study, in my opinion, it concludes or irrefutably proves the organisms can be transmitted from domestic to bighorn sheep, at least under these experimental conditions."
Dr. Shri is working on a way to allow the two species to commingle without disease transfer. He is not ready to talk about that work but is hopeful it will lead to a long-term solution.
"I'm not working against domestic sheep or supporting domestic sheep," he said. "We want to identify the problem and see, as scientists, if we can come up with a solution that is good for both sides."
But until that hope becomes a reality, the ranchers face the likelihood of having to adapt to unwanted change.
"This is their way of life and you are mandating change. The tribe is very sympathetic to that. It is the story the tribe has been living," Lawrence said.
Wildlife biologists across the West have watched for years as wild sheep died after coming into contact with domestic sheep.
Hells Canyon once had a wild sheep population estimated at 10,000. Today it is home to about 875 bighorns. Many of those are the descendants of 600 wild sheep transplanted there, from other areas over the past 30 years. In 1996, the canyon was hit with a die-off that killed about 300 animals. Since then, different herds in the canyon have struggled as lambs succumb to pneumonia.
Far less is known about the wild sheep in the Salmon River country between Riggins and the South Fork of the Salmon, where there have not been any reintroduction efforts. Biologist estimate there are about 100 native bighorns there and population trend surveys show wild sheep numbers have slid by 70 percent in the last two decades. Nearly all wildlife biologists pin the problem on the presence of domestic sheep. But the ranchers say they never see wild sheep on the grazing allotments. The tribe and others are working on a research project to better understand how wild sheep use the canyon.
The issue reached a boiling point on the Payette National Forest when a new forest plan was released in 2003. That plan left domestic sheep grazing unchanged. The Nez Perce Tribe and three environmental groups appealed the forest plan. In 2005, the chief of the U.S. Forest Service ordered the forest to rewrite the plan to protect wild sheep and their habitat by making sure domestic and wild sheep do not interact.
"The federal law says we must provide quality, well-distributed habitat across the planning unit that will provide for a viable population of desirable native and non-native wildlife species," said Pattie Soucek, a planner for the forest. "We have plenty of habitat, well distributed and it's of high quality. The chief told us as long as you have domestic sheep on the habitat it is not available."
After the remand, the forest conducted an assessment of the risk sheep grazing was causing to bighorns. That assessment was then reviewed by a panel of outside scientists. They concluded that mixture of the two species spreads disease from domestic to wild sheep -- scientists don't know how or why -- that the two species are curious about each other and want to interact, and that until science can provide more information the prudent action is to keep the species separate.
The findings were followed by a few years of inaction. Then, in 2007, Western Watersheds Project sued the agency and asked a federal judge not to allow grazing until the forest plan remand was finished. Eventually a settlement was reached based upon recommendations by the Nez Perce Tribe that forbid grazing in high-risk areas. But the lawsuit, which has many facets, continues.
Last year the forest completed a draft of its new bighorn sheep plan. Public comments on that draft are due Tuesday. Soucek said the agency will review the comments, make adjustments to the plan and issue a final decision near the end of the year. She is well aware of what is at stake.
"You have people's livelihood that depend on the domestic sheep, you have people's livelihoods that depend on the wild sheep and you have the tribe that depends on the resource," Soucek said. "It's social, it's political, it's tribal, it's economical. It is not your typical clean-cut resource analysis. It's a very complex one."
The ranchers don't believe their sheep are making the bighorns sick. But they also believe a 1997 agreement they signed with the Wallowa Whitman National Forest, Idaho, Oregon and Washington game departments, the Bureau of Land Management and the Wild Sheep Foundation protected them from any negative consequences of the bighorns transplanted from other states mixing with domestic sheep.
"My hope is these agencies and groups that signed this 1997 agreement, somewhere somebody is going to stand up and decide they ought to live up to their promises, especially our own government," said Ron Shirts, who runs sheep on the Payette. "If we had signed an agreement similar to that, you know dang well what side of the court the ball would be on. We would be made to stand by it and we would stand by it."
But people from those agencies say the agreement covered only one specific release of wild sheep, pertaining only to the Wallowa Whitman forest, and doesn't cover wild sheep introduced to the canyon prior to 1997 or sheep native to the canyon. They also say the agreement was signed without proper federal review and environmental analysis. That was stated in the Forest Service 2007 decision to reject the Payette National Forest plan that allowed grazing to continue based on the agreement.
"This thing is in violation of every federal land law you can think of, from the National Environmental Policy Act, National Forest Management Act to the Nez Perce 1855 treaty," said Neil Thagard of the Wild Sheep Foundation. "The thing basically has no legs; that is why the chief of the Forest Service threw it out."