Counting Sheep Before They Sleep

The Payette National Forest staff may have trouble sleeping, but that's not the reason they are  counting sheep.  The Chief of the Forest Service reversed the Regional Forester's approval of the 2003 Land and Resource Management Plan, and directed the Regional Forester to analyze the viability of bighorn sheep on the Payette National Forest.  


How do bighorn sheep butt into a forest management plan?  A Land and Resource Management Plan (LRMP) evaluates environmental consequences of forest management actions.  One management decision - the allocation of rangeland resources to domestic sheep grazing, involves a hazard to bighorn sheep.  The hazard is a bacteria that causes pneumonia and, when transmitted from domestics to bighorns, high mortality.  Following the Forest Service appeal and decision review process, the chain of command directed the Payette NF to adequately address the   long term viability of bighorn sheep.  The Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (DSEIS) documents the review  as well as the analysis of management alternatives contained in the original 2003 planning document.


The Hazard

McCall Library Photo CollectionDomestic sheep have left their trail  on the landscape of  Idaho's history.  In the early 1900's, over 2.5 million sheep were raised within Idaho's borders.  The Payette National Forest supported about 200,000 sheep during that era.  Today, the numbers statewide are 265,000 and less than 20,000 graze within the allotments on the Payette.


Bighorn sheep herds occur in two geographic regions of the  National Forest: the Hells Canyon Management Area and the Salmon River Mountains.  Population  estimates (2005) for the respective regions are 800 and 500 animals.


Domestic sheep harbor a bacteria that causes pneumonia.  Although these Old World sheep have developed resistance to the disease, the New World  species (Rocky Mountain bighorn)  have not.  A science panel  concluded that contact between the two species can transmit the disease, and therefore such contact is a hazard to bighorn sheep populations.  When contact occurs, bighorn herd mortality can be dramatic (50% or greater with a single contact).   Although specifics of the disease transmission remain unknown, the panel  concluded from their review of the scientific evidence that only one theme song was justifiable, and that song is "It Had to be Ewe".

The Risk

   A risk assessment estimates the likelihood of a hazard producing a negative outcome.  The Forest Service staff was directed to assess the risk to bighorn sheep from contact between the species.  The ultimate risk in question is the mortality rate and potential extirpation of the bighorn  herds.   The  analysis indirectly assessed this risk by estimating the potential for contact between the species.  Researchers justified this approach  based on a review of existing research and expert opinion.  Payette staff estimated the negative outcome by the following guideline:  1) one contact per year between the two species results in a 50% chance of disease transmission;  2) the disease transmission will reduce the herd population by 50%.


Consider the  potential loss over a ten year period.  Assume a herd with a population of 100, and an annual contact with a 50% chance of disease transmission.   If contact occurs each year, that means half the time the disease will be transmitted.  During a ten year period, the bighorn would then contract the disease half the time, or five out of ten years.  For each of those five years, 50% of the population dies.  The population drops from 100 to 50 in Year 1, to 25 in Year 2,  to 12 in Year 3,  then 6 in Year 4 and finally to 3 sheep in year 5.  Lamb recruitment remains depressed for two or more years following the disease transmission, preventing herd recovery.


With the potential for such high mortality rates, the planning team determined that the management surrogate for the population mortality is the risk of contact between domestic and big horn sheep.  To evaluate this risk, three landscape classifications or descriptions were required:  1) the location of bighorn sheep habitat; 2) the location  of the bighorn sheep, derived from telemetry and direct field observations (geographic population range); and 3) the location and characteristics of sheep grazing allotments (number of animals, period of use).


An expert panel reviewed the information and each panel participant independently assigned a risk of contact to the grazing allotments on the forest.  The composite assignment of risk to grazing allotments enabled the staff to assess relative risk levels between  management alternatives.  Comparison metrics included the acres retained in grazing allotments as well as the relative risk remaining on the landscape under each management alternative.


Management Control

 The primary management control  to reduce risk is the separation of the two species.  Since fences are not a solution, the analysts shifted allotment alternatives on the map like the  board game Risk, , and tabulated the results.  The preferred alternative excludes domestic sheep from all existing rangeland resources that occur within the geographic population range of the bighorn sheep.  This strategy reduces the allotment acres from the existing 490,500 to 192,100.  Allotments retain 39% of the previously permitted acres on the forest;  analysts estimate that the relative risk remaining outside the allotment acres is 20% of the total risk.


The draft plan amendment also defines standards of performance that guide adjustments to the preferred alternative over time (see links of interest for details).

Public Information Meeting: Neighbors Butting Heads

A McCall public information meeting reviewed

the DSEIS (September 29th, 2008).  The meeting  attracted a diversity of stakeholders. Several  audience questions were purely informational, others revealed two distinct neighborhood perspectives. One group's paramount concern is the extirpation of bighorn sheep.  The second group perceives a threat of a different extirpation - that of a century old rural way of life.   


The defenders of New World sheep  questioned  why the federal government allows domestic sheep grazing on a National Forest - at any price, but also for the current rate set by Congress.  One participant promoted ecotourism for local economic development as an alternative, and wanted to see decent forests  "when we are out there".  "Decent" implied landscapes without domestic sheep herds. 


Three of the four allotment permittees explained the business of raising sheep.   Their history in the region extends nearly a century.  One of the ranchers suggested a benefit from  integrating land use history with tourism,  and gave the example of the annual Trailing of the Sheep Festival ( in Ketchum, Idaho).  The festival celebrates the cultural heritage of this rural lifestyle, and  tourists  flock each year to participate.   The festival website notes that MSN Travel rated the event as one of the top ten fall festivals in the world.


The discussion  highlighted that the neighborhood is even more complex than the model reviewed for the meeting.  The analysis excluded the adjacent  landowners  that also provide grazing for   domestic sheep, and the potential for disease transmission.  These landowners include the Bureau of Land Management, the bordering National Forests, Idaho Department of Lands, and private owners.  The audience questioned whether the DSEIS preferred alternative offers a viable strategy considering that key landowners are waiting on the sidelines for the outcome on the Payette.


National Open Space Strategy

The economic web of land use

is also more complex due to potential cumulative impacts.  Phil Soulen, representing Soulen Livestock, described the geographic scope of operations for a wool grower in Idaho.  Soulen Livestock started raising sheep in the region during the 1920's.  Their federal allotment on the Payette NF is an important piece of an array of rangeland resources that extend from Idaho County to Elmore County.  In addition to the Payette NF allotment, the family owned business grazes sheep on 450,000 acres in the Birds of Prey Area, 25,000 acres on an IDL lease, 31,000 acres from Potlatch Corporation (former land of Boise Cascade), and 50,000 acres of fee title. The dispersed location and elevation provide grass at different times during the calendar year.  Soulen commented that his situation is not unique, other ranchers have similar grazing arrangements for their operations.


What happens if allotments on the Payette are closed in the future, or substantially reduced? The change may be the tipping point that terminates  a  viable business. Not unlike the biological hazard of disease transmission, the Payette could adopt a management alternative that has an unintended consequence on its ranching neighbors.  A management alternative could initiate a series of market consequences that increase the rate of land use change.  Reducing available rangeland beyond the tipping point for a sheep rancher may compel the private landowner to pursue  conversion of grasslands to other uses.    Without revenue from their livestock, the real estate market will transmit its influence on the landscape.  Such an outcome would be contrary to the objectives of the Forest Service's own National Open Space Conservation Strategy, a management direction that promotes the agency to "cooperate across boundaries to sustain working and natural landscapes" .


The Forest  Supervisor, Suzanne Rainville, resides in the middle of this neighborhood, listening to   comments from the New and Old West.  The New West looks to the Forest for aesthetic and recreation enjoyment,  while the Old West views the Forest as part of an intricate  economic web for resource production that weaves within the forest and beyond its borders.  Supervisor Rainville must obey the law, and manage the resource with an alternative that achieves viable populations of bighorn sheep.  At the same time, the National Open Space Strategy  seeks collaboration to protect working lands.  Balancing these often conflicting objectives by selecting a feasible management alternative requires participation from the entire neighborhood.  Finding that balance will help all neighbors sleep better, knowing they can count on both Old and New World sheep.


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