NACHES, Wash. -- On the slopes overlooking the Nile Valley from the north side of Highway 410, seeing wildlife is no big deal. But when someone happened to see three bighorns in July up Rock Creek, it was a very big deal indeed.
The bighorns weren't far from where the Martinez sheep-ranching operation would soon be herding out roughly 1,000 ewes and their lambs on a section of the Wenatchee National Forest.
And bighorns and domestic sheep simply cannot mingle.
The latter are often carriers of bacterial parasites, such as pasteurella, that have minimal effect on domestic sheep but in bighorns can cause pneumonia virulent enough to decimate a herd.
So state wildlife biologists were called. They phoned officials at the Naches Ranger District, who contacted the Martinez family, which in turn delayed and then redirected its sheep, skipping some slopes they might have grazed simply to prevent even the faintest possibility of crossing paths with the bighorns.
It was a typically proactive response by Nick and Mark Martinez, brothers who run a third-generation family business in Moxee that was begun by their grandfather nearly nine decades ago.
Forest Service and state wildlife officials are highly complimentary of the Martinez family's can-do adaptability when bighorn issues arise.
"In fact," said Jodi Leingang, the Naches district's range coordinator, "sometimes they're ahead of us on these matters."
Soon, though, the game will be played with different rules.
The people who manage Washington's wildlife and public lands are awaiting an Idaho plan that may lead to sweeping changes in how best to maintain a safe distance between bighorns and domestic sheep -- and just how big that buffer zone will have to be.
"It depends on how big they draw that circle," Nick Martinez said. "If they're drawing that circle 10 miles around the one (bighorn) sheep, well. ..."
The Payette precedent
How big that circle will be may be determined in Idaho, where Payette National Forest officials are within a few weeks of unveiling a long-awaited draft environmental impact statement on how to protect bighorn sheep.
The Payette -- a 2.3 million-acre stretch of land that abuts the Snake River and Hells Canyon, site of a pasteurella-related bighorn die-off in the 1990s -- has been a simmering legal battlefield between sheep ranchers and environmentalists for six years.
Sheep ranchers, like their counterparts in the cattle industry, rarely have sufficient privately owned land to provide year-round grazing and have relied on leasing grazing land from state and federal land managers. The Payette, like the Okanogan and Wenatchee National Forest in Washington, has been grazed by domestic sheep for decades. But it's also home to bighorn sheep.
When Payette Forest officials released a 20-year forest plan in 2003, tribal and environmental groups appealed, saying the plan failed to address the bighorn-sheep proximity issue. Two years later, the Forest Service called for the plan to be rewritten, and in 2007 three conservation groups sued to prevent sheep grazing until the plan is finished. A federal district judge ordered ranchers to remove their sheep from several grazing allotments within the Payette forest to protect bighorns.
Last summer, the Idaho Legislature enacted a law to keep the sheep and bighorns apart, but its execution relied on cooperative efforts -- pacts between the ranchers and state officials -- to ensure that separation. But just this month, the same federal judge ruled that one such pact wasn't doing the job; he ordered a western Idaho rancher to vacate an allotment in the Payette that his family's sheep had grazed for 70 years.
Washington land managers are waiting as the Idaho drama plays itself out. If the Forest Service plan in Payette strikes a fair balance between bighorns' safety concerns and the ability of sheep ranchers to make a living -- and survives the inevitable salvo of lawsuits -- it could offer a blueprint when officials in the Okanogan and Wenatchee National Forest revise the bighorn portion of their forest plan.
"The information they're developing, and the direction they're going, will set the direction nationally" for management of bighorns and domestic sheep, said Donnie Martorello, who oversees Washington's bighorns for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
"It's the precedent."
Adapt or lose
Bighorns disappeared from Washington in the 1930s, victims of pasteurella, excessive hunting and people moving onto their land. Reintroduction efforts by state biologists, sportsmen associations and Native Americans have helped build the population back up to about 1,300.
But because of the risk of bacterial infection, their survival remains tenuous. The Yakama Nation long ago banned domestic sheep grazing in the closed area of the reservation, decades before the tribe began a highly successful bighorn reintroduction program five years ago. (The tribe's bighorns, numbering 13 in 2004, were up to 89 at the last aerial survey.) When one of their bighorns wanders into an area where there might be grazing sheep, tribal biologists relocate it or, on rare occasions, put it down to prevent it from possibly infecting other bighorns with bacterial pneumonia.
"All it takes is just one (sheep-bighorn interaction)," said Arlen Washines, head of the Yakamas' wildlife program, noting that the tribe had made the decision to "be consciously competent" about its bighorn policy. "It's not hard science to see what happened once could happen again."
Nearly all of the federal national forest and Department of Natural Resources areas grazed by the Martinez sheep between western Yakima County and northern Kittitas County include either bighorns or habitat suitable to bighorns. So it didn't surprise Leingang, the Naches district's range coordinator, when the Martinezes reacted quickly last July to avert a possible bighorn encounter.
The family has had a lot of practice adjusting. When livestock grazing leases were eliminated on the Yakima Training Center in 1995, the Martinez operation lost a significant portion of its business; its roughly 6,000 sheep now is a little more than half what the family had two decades ago.
"We've been around long enough to know you've got to adapt," Nick Martinez said. "If you don't, you're gonna lose."
Writing on the wall
In July, when the bighorns were spotted up at Rock Creek, all that was lost was some good grazing days by the Martinez sheep.
"Which sounds like no big deal, but it is," Leingang insisted. "Maybe they don't lose a season of use with something like this, but (the sheep) lose days of grazing -- which, because they're eating less and we're moving them quicker and moving them around, there's the potential for them to lose weight, and what they're out there for is to gain weight to take them to market.
"And we didn't even hear any whining (from the Martinez family)."
Grazing will remain an adaptive process for sheep ranchers either way, but the ramifications from the Payette process will be profound.
"It has the potential to be huge," said Nick Martinez, who has put any plans for possible business expansion on hold. "The writing is on the wall. You don't want to expand and all of a sudden have to pull three allotments, and you've got hungry sheep wanting to be fed.
"If you start losing half your allotments, where do you go? What happens when (a couple of bighorns) show up in the middle of an allotment? It's the not knowing what's going to happen that makes it hard. We can work with Bernie (state wildlife biologist Jeff Bernatowicz) and Jodi (Leingang), but what if it's some third party who's making decisions by looking at numbers on a piece of paper?"