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Battle of the Bighorn


July 09, 2005

Over the last six years, a battle to save the endangered bighorn sheep has succeeded beyond the expectations of the state and federal agencies and advocacy groups that launched the project along the eastern Sierra Nevada in California and Nevada. The numbers of this unique species, separate from the desert bighorn in Southern California, have rebounded from about 100 to as many as 350. Now the state Fish and Game Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are considering a regulation that would allow them to trap or kill bighorns, ostensibly in order to save them. It's a classic case of bureaucratic wrongheadedness.

The aim is to protect the bighorns from catching fatal diseases, such as pneumonia, from domestic sheep that are allowed to graze in portions of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, home to about 20 of the wild sheep. Incredibly, the U.S. Forest Service still allows about 6,500 domestic sheep to graze on leases covering about 175,000 acres. That's a fraction of what it used to be, but enough to present a danger if the two species mingle. Then the Fish and Game Department would be summoned to trap or kill the bighorns to prevent them from infecting other wild sheep.

In summer, the nimble and elusive bighorns rock-hop as high as 14,000 feet in the Sierra. At times, however, they drop lower to graze. That's the danger zone.

Summer grazing of domestic sheep in the mountains was mostly phased out over the years as sheep-raising dwindled and recreation use of the forests mushroomed. "Locusts," John Muir called the herds, even though his first trip into the High Sierra was as a sheepherder.

To Daniel Patterson, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group, the answer is obvious and simple. "Get rid of the domestic sheep," he told The Times' Tim Reiterman.

The bureaucratic culprit here is neither the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service nor state Fish and Game, but a U.S. Forest Service that insists on an anachronistic leasing program. The Forest Service says it will monitor both kinds of sheep over the next year in hopes of keeping them from mixing. But who knows how many bighorns might have to be quarantined or killed to see if they are ill?

The service should do as Patterson suggested. The Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest covers 6.3 million acres, the largest forest outside of Alaska. Surely officials can find a safer place for the sheep to graze.

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