Idaho Fish and Game to allow Kill Permits?

August 7, 2009 by  
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Fish & Game approves plans that include kill permits

By Eric Barker

Plans for managing wild and domestic sheep herds are certified as required by law passed last year

Idaho Fish and Game Director Cal Groen approved 11 plans Thursday aimed at keeping domestic and bighorn sheep from coming into contact with one another.

Some of the plans, known as best management practices, include kill permits that allow ranchers and sheep herders to kill bighorns if the wild sheep are seen mixing with domestic sheep. The kill permits were included so ranchers can help ensure wild bighorn sheep that come in contact with domestics do not have a chance to carry disease back to their herds and infect other wild sheep.555439813_430581100_mbr_9318_wsl-1

Jim Unsworth, deputy director of Fish and Game, said in several cases the department also has permission to kill and remove domestic sheep that wander into areas where they could come in contact with bighorns.

“We have allowed kill permits for bighorn sheep, and the opposite of that is permission is given to Fish and Game to kill domestic sheep if they are in the wrong places,” he said.

In May, a bighorn ram was seen in close proximity of domestic sheep near Riggins. Afterward the ram showed signs of pneumonia, and the department decided to kill it to prevent it from spreading disease to other bighorns. But the ram eluded the department’s efforts for about three weeks while it ran with a group of bighorn rams.

A law passed by the Idaho Legislature last winter mandated the department to seek out the agreements with all domestic sheep ranchers who run their animals in areas where they could come in contact with bighorns. According to the law, those plans were to be certified by Groen by Thursday.

Most wildlife managers and biologists believe bighorn sheep are highly susceptible to contacting pneumonia when they mix with domestic sheep that carry the disease. Cases of die-offs and chronic pneumonia have been documented in wild sheep herds throughout the West after they have had contact with domestic sheep.

Groen said the department determined 18 sheep ranchers in the state operate in areas where contact with bighorns is possible. The plans range from simple to complex, and a range of measures are outlined depending on the threat of contact on each of the allotments. Participation by the ranchers is voluntary, and Groen said four declined to work with the department to craft the plans. Another four did opt to participate but the department and ranchers have not yet been able to craft plans acceptable to both sides.

“We will move forward on the ones we are still working on and hope to get something accomplished on them,” Unsworth said. “We may or may not. This is a voluntary deal on the producers’ side. They may decide the (best management practices) we suggest are not appropriate.”

In certifying the plans, Groen said the department is saying the plans “provide for the separation that reduces the risk of disease transmission between domestic sheep and bighorn sheep to a level that is acceptable to bighorn sheep viability.”

The law, written by Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, who is also a sheep rancher, was prompted by a process on the Payette National Forest that could reduce domestic sheep grazing in Hells Canyon and the Salmon River canyon by about 60 percent. Bighorn herds in both areas have been documented with pneumonia and the Salmon River herds have declined by more than 70 percent in the past 20 years.

Officials on the forest are in the process of finalizing that plan, and in passing the law legislators hoped to influence their final decision. But the agency could decide to disregard the plans and reduce or end domestic sheep grazing in areas occupied by bighorn sheep.

Last week, Region Four of the U.S. Forest Service, which includes the Payette National Forest, added bighorn sheep to its list of sensitive species. The designation means the agency will work to preclude bighorns from advancing to threatened or endangered status under the Endangered Species Act, and all forests in the region will have to consider what effects proposed actions have on wild sheep.

Keith Lawrence, director of the Nez Perce Tribe’s wildlife department, said the sensitive species designation is both appropriate and important.

“I think the recognition says that the trends are not headed in the right direction and that it needs to change,” he said. “When you are talking about the population being 10 percent of what it historically was, I think that is a huge recognition that we are in trouble and we need to fix this.”

555439898_430581164_crw_1075_rt16-mThe tribe is opposed to the law calling for the best management practices and instead believes domestic sheep should be kept out of areas where bighorns roam.

“We have not had a chance to review the plans that have been developed. We hope that they do not advocate continued domestic sheep grazing in or adjacent to occupied bighorn sheep habitat, as it has been shown that the (best management practices) approach is ineffective when applied to occupied bighorn sheep range,” said Samuel N. Penney, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee.

Lawrence said similar plans to those envisioned by the law were in place along the Salmon River in May, when the bighorn ram came in contact with domestic sheep.

“There was still contact and after the contact the provisions in place in the (best management practices) agreement to contain the risk of disease transmission failed.”

Lawrence went on to say agreements with kill permits might well stem the spread of disease after contact occurs, but the end result is still dead bighorns.

“The root problem is you still have domestic sheep too close to bighorn sheep. If you have to have a kill permit to make separation then you are probably way too close.”