Permanent Pandemic on Public Lands: Welfare Sheep Ranchers and Their Enablers Hold the West’s Bighorns Hostage

Bighorn Eye

Photo: USFWS.

“Clinical signs can include nasal discharge, coughing, respiratory distress, exercise intolerance, and general depression but animals are often found dead … Depending on what pathogens are involved the disease may progress rapidly or more slowly. While this is often a fatal disease some adults may also recover and become chronic bacterial carriers.  Different pathogens will induce different patterns of histopathology. With advanced disease nearly the entire lung can be affected”.

–  Bighorn Sheep Pneumonia, National Park Service

This winter, a series of news reports highlighted the plight of bighorn sheep across the West dying from pneumonia harbored and transmitted by domestic sheep. Estimates are that over 2 million bighorn sheep once inhabited North America. Today only a small fraction of that number survive, many in Canada. The West’s wild bighorn populations are confined to bits and pieces of their historic range. Whole herds are periodically wiped out by disease. Infected herds may be killed off by Game agencies who then turn around and transplant uninfected bighorns back into a mountain range to live a precarious always-in-isolation existence. After a die-off (or kill-off), the sad situation replays itself, giddy optimism followed by more death. A couple dozen “clean” bighorns are captured in a helicopter rodeo in a distant site, then moved into the empty habitat. Sometimes, the agency gives up, as happened with the Cottonwood herd in the South Hills near Twin Falls, where the last sheep were “put down”. A recent article on an infected herd near Baker City Oregon shows the Game agency investigating a pneumonia strain mystery to determine a herd’s fate.

In Nevada, “the No. 1 concern for the official state animal, says Nevada Department of Wildlife veterinarian Peregrine Wolff, is pneumonia. Desert bighorn sheep likely first contracted the pneumonia-causing bacteria generations ago from domestic sheep brought to the American West from Europe. While domestic sheep had already developed a degree of tolerance or immunity to the bacteria, wild bighorn sheep were never previously exposed to the disease, making them more likely to succumb to it. “These animals have no immunity to the actual bacteria itself,” Wolff said”.

In Wyoming, cattle and sheep ranchers are prodding the Bridger-Teton Forest to open closed allotments and impose sheep grazing in places where conservation groups paid to buy out and retire grazing permits specifically because of wildlife conflicts: Bridger-Teton National Forest officials are taking steps to allow sheep and cattle to return to lands vacated by livestock producers who voluntarily accepted payments to graze their herds elsewhere. The agency wants to change the Forest Plan so it can sacrifice the Darby Mountain bighorn population to Woolgrowers whining about having to change grazing elsewhere because of conflicts with grizzly bears: “a restocking request for returning sheep [domestic] to two vacated allotments in the Wyoming Range, meanwhile, hinges on changing the forest plan to deemphasize protections for the Darby Mountain bighorn sheep herd.”

A recent paper (there have been many before it) pushes back against the public lands sheep industry’s chronic disease denialism, describing domestic sheep pneumonia spillover causing bighorn die-offs:

“A new large-scale genetic study has determined that domestic sheep and goats are the source of bronchopneumonia in bighorn sheep and mountain goats in the western United States Using nearly 600 isolates collected over a 33-year period, the five-member team studied the genetic structure of the bacterium Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae, the primary causative agent of bronchopneumonia, in the domestic and wild sheep and goats to better understand transmission and spillover dynamics of the pathogen. Spillover diseases have significant consequences for human and animal health, including wildlife conservation efforts …”.

It contains information on high pneumonia strain diversity: “The researchers found a high number of bacterial strains in domestic sheep flocks, the majority of which (77%) harbored unique strains. In domestic goats, there also was a large proportion of herds with unique strains (46%)”.

The political clout of the Woolgrowers in state Legislatures and Congress stifles agency biologists from clearly speaking about the need to permanently end domestic sheep grazing on public lands. Game agencies are locked in a cycle of hoping that domestic sheep aren’t herded too close to wild sheep where fateful intermingling occurs, and praying that young rams don’t get a whiff of domestic sheep in estrous miles away, head out towards the females, and then return back home as super spreaders carrying contagion. They content themselves with radio collaring, transplanting, re-transplanting and other wrangling as populations limp along or are extinguished.

Its bighorn sheep murder most foul. But whodunit? The guilty often escape mention. News stories read as if the disease emerged from an alien spacecraft, mysteriously alighting in a remote mountain range to wreak havoc. The typical die-off story goes like this: Agency issues a press release or fields questions about mounting observations of sick, weak, sniffling, coughing and sneezing bighorns, or dead wild sheep are observed. Grown college educated men and women wring their hands, tiptoeing carefully around a clear explanation. If they do let slip that the BLM or the Forest Service refuse to close domestic sheep allotments too close to bighorn habitat, the guilty ranching operation remains unnamed, lest the agency invoke the wrath of the sheep baron whose herds are at fault.

This is part of a larger engrained state and federal agency culture of repression of forthright discussion of the toll that sheep and cattle grazing takes on wildlife. Similarly, livestock-caused habitat degradation is rarely mentioned publicly by state and federal agencies. A story on pronghorn dying in Wyoming due to a disease called Mycoplasma bovis illustrates the absurdity of the situation “the source of the infection, the possible duration and the geographic distribution of the outbreak among pronghorn are so far unknown, officials said”. Bovis sure does suspiciously sound like cows might be culprits.

Often when I encounter the filthy water, manure expanses, and other degradation from cattle and sheep, I’ve wondered what all the diseases are that wildlife and people are being exposed to on public lands. For example, Sheep may carry Q fever, a zoonotic disease which can persist in soil indefinitely, and other diseases that infect humans. When you hear hype that beavers are responsible for Giardia in Wilderness streams, it’s pretty safe to assume cows or sheep are involved. Cattle harbor and spread a range of pests and diseases that impact bighorns in various ways, too, though none so calamitously as pneumonia.

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Ecological Impacts on Top of Disease Impacts

Under the trampling hoofs and voracious mouths of domestic livestock, native plant communities did not bend to adapt, they shattered. Cheatgrass and other weeds swept into the void, and now are ever-expanding under the continued madness of livestock grazing in the arid West, and the added boost from hotter conditions under climate change stress. Although grazing’s role in causing desertification and drying up streams and springs has long been known, it now seems forgotten by federal land management agencies.

Sheeped out country has a distinct look – unnaturally round shrubs, far too much bare soil between plants, young aspen or willows (if there are any) stripped bare of leaves with wood gnawed back by the hoofed locusts, and patchy bare spots on sideslopes often cut with trails.

Places where bighorns live are determined by the location of BLM and Forest Service domestic sheep allotments. Sheep allotments have declined in number over the years, with sheep being replaced by cattle lest no lands go ungrazed. But far too many remain, and they overlap prime bighorn habitat, since sheep are more readily grazed in rugged terrain than heavy unwieldy cows. Though diminished in number, the industry still retains a death grip preventing bighorns from occupying the rugged landscapes they require.

Huge operations are the norm. A tiny number of Woolgrowers (the sheep industry group) casts a pall of disease over wild mountain ranges and canyons including many Wilderness areas. My back of the envelope calculation is that terminating sheep grazing permits held by fewer than 25 grazing operations in Nevada would make nearly all the states’ 300 mountain ranges habitable by wild sheep.

A single operation may hold grazing permits across dozens of allotments. In addition, trailing of sheep bands takes place in between allotments, spreading disease and weeds far and wide. Sheep are superb weed super spreaders with seeds lodged in wool. Many allotments listed on paper as cattle allotments have sheep trailed back and forth across them each year. Some suffer permits for both cows and sheep, hit with a grazing double whammy. Cows beat out the flatter areas, while the soils and crusts on steep slopes are sliced open by tens of thousands of little hoofs. This is a very efficient way to maximize cheatgrass spread into higher elevations. The springs, seeps and small streams are hit by both kinds of livestock.

A pneumonia plague-print of disease surrounds each of the big sheep operations. Some spend the entire year roaming across public lands. Sheep may be hauled (including inter-state) from one mountain range or desert valley to the next or spend winter in California or on marginal ag fields bordering BLM lands. Itinerant sheep operations are not really gone.

It’s not the sheep baron permit holder that does the real work. The grueling work is done by foreign herders, often Peruvians, who are in the U.S typically for 3 years or so at a time on agricultural visas. They live year-round in tiny spartan sheep camp wagons, or small camper trailers, exposed to weather extremes. Often no motor vehicle stays with them, and the wagon/trailer gets towed from place to place. They’re stuck outside in winter cold or scorching summer heat, dependent on the boss for supplies, often unable to speak English. The exploited herders may be abused by their bosses, but have little recourse. I’ve seen herders in Nevada’s Diamond Range dressed literally in rags. If it weren’t for the ridiculously low public lands grazing fee, currently at twenty-seven cents per month per sheep, and other subsidies, these operations would evaporate.

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In Nevada, huge operations like Vogler’s “Need More Sheep” run roughshod over wildlife habitats and agency personnel in the Schell Creek Range, northern Spring Valley and beyond. Near the California-Nevada border, a couple of Woolgrowers dominate Forest Ranger Districts. Barrick and Newmont Canadian gold mines have come to control immense public lands cattle and sheep grazing permits. These behemoths (they’ve now formed a joint venture) each control permits on nearly a million acres. They bought out private ranch lands for the water, and the ranches had grazing permits attached. Instead of ceasing grazing to mitigate cyanide heap leach gold mining’s devastating environmental impacts, it continues under the U.S.’s perverse public land exploitation laws.

The Las Vegas Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) under the reign of Pat Mulroy, became a major sheep operator when it bought out ranches to acquire water rights for the now crippled scheme to mine aquifers in the Spring and Snake Valleys by Great Basin National Park. SNWA sheep allotments form an arc of disease around Great Basin National Park. Their herds roam far and wide into Cave and Lake Valleys, and Wilson Creek east of Pioche. Mountain ranges with otherwise splendid bighorn habitat are empty because of a single domestic sheep operation. Their ranch managers cheerlead for rapacious Ely BLM and Humboldt-Toiyabe Forest pinyon-juniper deforestation projects to increase forage and make it easier to herd sheep through rugged areas.

In Idaho, like Nevada, there are very few, but large, sheep operations. Idaho’s sheep aristocracy is highly inter-married and often quite wealthy. Idaho’s current Governor, cattle rancher Brad Little, comes from one of the Idaho sheep families.

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Woolgrowers and Predator Eradication

A predator killing reign of terror extends across the landscape surrounding public lands sheep grazing operations. Carnage is inflicted on native predators by Wildlife Services as they try to make wild country safe for domestic sheep. A biologist I worked with years ago summed up the matter: “Domestic sheep are the only animal born looking for a way to die”. Predators are blamed and viciously persecuted as a result. In one instance (and this is not unique) more than a hundred sheep smothered when they piled atop one another in a Ceanaothus patch (a lovely glistening-leafed thick shrub). They were spooked by a black bear. The bear didn’t touch a single sheep. Yet this was considered a “predator depredation” and the Game Department had to pay the rancher for the dead sheep.

Wildlife Services doesn’t just go out and slaughter predators after a “depredation” is alleged to take place. They also conduct pre-emptive scorched earth aerial gunning, trapping, shooting, snaring and deplorable denning on public lands. Denning involves killing coyote pups in the den. What monster would do such a thing – other than a handmaiden of the brutal livestock industry? All this killing can take place, and the Woolgrower doesn’t have to lift a finger to take precautionary measures to protect hapless herds.

If you want to understand the livestock grazing hell that wildlife like sage-grouse face, go out by the lava around the margins of the Snake River Plain in early spring. In 2014, in the build-up to the sage-grouse non-listing decision by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, a mammoth raven poisoning project was proposed in eastern Idaho. The livestock industry claimed ravens eating grouse eggs were a major cause of grouse decline. Ravens were to be baited with meat or eggs containing a horrible chemical called DRC 1339 that causes organ breakdown and a slow death. This scheme (eventually thwarted) was billed as an “experiment” to boost flagging sage-grouse populations by Birch Creek and the Idaho Nuclear Laboratory east towards Mud Lake and south to the Curlew Grasslands on Caribou-Targhee Forest and Idaho Falls District BLM lands. As news of the Cliven Bundy Bunkerville confrontation was coming across the radio and e-mail, I was out wandering in this country amid the stench and bleating of sheep, looking at herds ravaging the sagebrush, devouring the fragile bunchgrasses and forbs when they’re most susceptible to damage, and stripping the screening cover needed to hide grouse nests. Spring sheep grazing provides the perfect storm of habitat disturbance plus food to lure in predators large and small – especially carrion eaters like ravens – with its dead sheep, afterbirth, water trucks run by leks or over the sage where birds might already be nesting, roaming stock dogs, and sheep camps. Sheep were out on a recent burn where taxpayers had spent a fortune in rehab plantings, in an allotment where the Siddoway sheep operation grazed. Jeff Siddoway was a former state Legislator for whom many wolves have been slaughtered. While pushing a live animal wolf baiting scheme in the Legislature, Siddoway said he’d put his wife’s dog out as bait.

Celebrating the Culture of Wildlife Death and Habitat Destruction

Western resort towns often profit on ranching nostalgia, helping perpetuate the myth of a benevolent livestock industry culture. This obscures the habitat destruction, unraveling watersheds, predator killing and general ecological reign of terror inflicted by the industry. October’s a slow tourist month in Idaho’s Wood River Valley and the Ketchum-Sun Valley resort area. Back when wolves in Idaho were still listed under the ESA, wealthy Idaho sheep ranchers grazing in the surrounding area were getting a black eye over wolf killing They seized on the idea of promoting a festival glorifying sheep to take the heat off environmental criticism.

Their herds spend summer tearing up watersheds from Featherville to the Sawtooths and Pioneers, including headwaters of the nearly salmonless Salmon River, provoking wolf predation and lethal retribution along the way. That killing now largely takes place outside the Wood River Valley to minimize upsetting local sensibilities.

When a pack’s territory is suddenly inundated with thousands of bleating sheep – what would anyone expect the wolves to do but pick off a few? Sheep are herded through wolf and wolverine habitat into the highest of talus-bordered meadows, where they rob pikas of the wildflowers needed for their winter hay harvest. It’s not just climate change affecting pikas in parts of the West, it’s sheep grazing, too. I’ve seen stray sheep wandering miles away from bands through no fault of the herders. How could one person possibly keep track of every animal when herds are being pushed up steep slopes, through dense timber, and across rugged divides? Guard dogs are used for predator protection. They can be a hazard to people and have attacked hikers and bicyclists over the years. The guard dogs too may fall victim to the negligence and brutality of the industry, as John Carter describes here.

In the sheep festival, herds are run through town as mutton simmers in the background. This brings tourist dollars to the community at a slow time. But come on. It’s fall and the aspen are lovely. Many other reasons for a festival could be found than a celebration of sheep shitting on main street and ravaging the Wood River watershed, where flows are increasingly scarce and water at a premium in drought years.

The sheep herds spewing manure on Ketchum streets block bighorns from inhabiting areas of the Sawtooth Mountains where, along with the Pahsimeroi and Salmon River country, mountain sheep were reported in C. H. Merriam’s biological reconnaissance and natural history of Idaho in The North American Fauna.

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Photos of the avalanche covering Eagle Creek in the Wood River watershed north of Ketchum. Rock hard snow resisted summer melting. Sheep had been run all over the snow and down into the stream. They stripped young willows and wildflowers emerging amid the debris. The stream flowed under the avalanche, reminiscent of Grendel’s lair, and an ice-chilled breeze blew.

Covid Shock Comes

At this point in the pandemic, the Wood River Valley has the highest COVID-19 infection rate per capita in the US, with many local health care workers stricken. While the pandemic was building, ski resort visitors including the ultra-wealthy in private planes, jetted in. As people were fleeing California, Washington and elsewhere, Idaho state officials and the dangerous depraved Legislature continued far too long to pretend Idaho had little to worry about. Drunk on the spiked Trump kool-aid, they were busy beating up on transgender people, women and whistleblowers, and purposefully stayed in session.

Now the whole state is under a Stay at Home Order. There are ever-tightening restrictions in the Wood River Valley, with construction work (almost as sacred a cow as ranching here) shut down. Who knows what the world will be like when fall 2020 rolls around, or if such things as sheep festivals will even be held? Whatever the future brings, I hope that community leaders reflect on the profoundly harmful ecological and wildlife death and disease implications of providing cover for the public lands sheep industry. It’s time to pivot to a new path forward.

Trophy Hunters

It’s unfathomable to me why killing an animal with a high-power weapon for a dead head to hang on the wall is considered a badge of manliness. But like monstrous pickups and big belt buckles, it is. Witness Trump’s son, with his night-time laser-guided bullet killing of a rare wild Argali sheep in Mongolia on an NRA “charity auction” trip. Trophy hunting groups in the US hold banquets auctioning off bighorn killing tags for a fortune. Game agencies give the groups tags, and the money raised is supposed to go for habitat work. Meanwhile, the little guy hunter contents himself with dreams of a once in a lifetime tag draw.

It’s amazing how trophy hunter manliness and bravado vanish when it comes to standing up to public lands ranchers, the overwhelming impediment to bighorn sheep inhabiting most mountain ranges across the West.

The Safari Club, Boone and Crockett Club and many local Wild Sheep groups are silent on the vast bighorn deserts caused by grazing. They occupy themselves with cheering on transplants after herds succumb to disease, or spend time developing water guzzlers in the places wild sheep persist outside domestic sheep death zones.

Why won’t the trophy hunters forcefully confront the industry? I’ve come to the conclusion that they don’t want there to be too many wild sheep so just anybody can kill one. They like the elitist mystique, where high rollers swoop in at auctions and buy tags or take guided hunts to exotic places to kill other species of wild sheep. Their leadership would rather be comfortably complicit with perpetuating the status quo than bring about real change. They take cues from the cowering Game Departments and don’t want to upset ranchers, the frontmen for other forms of public lands exploitation that many of their leaders or wealthy donors support and reap profits from.

Game Department video salivating over sheep body parts:


The Payette Disease Transmission Risk Model

A prolonged battle and extensive litigation to protect bighorn herds took place in Idaho starting in the early 2000s lasting over a decade. Throughout all this time, the Woolgrowers denied disease science, aided by quacks or industry die-hards associated with the University of Idaho, lobbyists and politicians.

Environmental appeals of a Payette Forest decision and mounting pressure from the Nez Perce Tribe (who had been pivotal in wolf establishment) resulted in the Payette Forest getting serious in determining what was needed to protect the Hells Canyon and Salmon River Mountains bighorn sheep metapopulations. The Salmon River animals were native wild sheep that had never been wiped out by disease.

The Forest produced a Risk Analysis of Disease Transmission Between Domestic Sheep and Bighorn Sheep on the Payette National Forest, which laid out the bleak picture:

“The combined effects of overharvest, habitat loss, competition for forage caused by livestock overgrazing, and diseases transmitted by domestic livestock resulted in precipitous declines in abundance and distribution of bighorn sheep during the late 1800s and early 1900s… Rocky Mountain and/or California bighorn sheep were extirpated from eastern Montana, eastern Wyoming, western North and South Dakota, northwestern Nebraska, Oregon, Washington, northern California, New Mexico, and Nevada …. Desert bighorn populations were extirpated from Texas and the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Coahuila …. Despite extensive efforts to recover bighorn populations in the western U.S., the total number of bighorn sheep in the U.S. currently is thought to be less than 10% of presettlement numbers. Current distribution of (who had been pivotal in bighorn sheep is less than a third of its presettlement distribution, and most existing populations are relatively isolated and small, composed of fewer than 100 individuals ….

Woolgrower and University of Idaho disease transmission denialism provoked letters from experts outside Idaho describing the absurdity of arguments by industry advocates lodged in state positions here. The Payette risk model detailed spatial separation distances necessary to protect viable bighorn populations. The industry fought every part of it every step of the way. In 2010, Forest Supervisor Suzanne Rainville completed a plan amendment to close domestic sheep allotments because of pneumonia transmission risk:“… four permittees are authorized to graze sheep on the PNF. A risk of contact with resultant diseases transmission may occur from any overlap between source habitat and domestic sheep allotments and the travel corridors that bighorn sheep traverse between their source habitats. Therefore, any effective separation strategy must eliminate overlap and reduce potential risk of disease transmission between the two species”.

Those legal battles finally ended in 2016 with a Ninth Circuit ruling. The Woolgrowers remain unrepentant and in denial. It was hoped that the Payette Model template would be widely and quickly applied to Forest Service and BLM grazing allotments across the West. Many Forest Service and BLM allotments have never had any modern-day grazing NEPA review. Sheep allotment permits are renewed with the same old boundaries located much too close to occupied or potential bighorn habitat. Change under the Obama administration was ploddingly slow or stalled out under timid or inept agency leadership. Now the livestock industry has the wind in its sails. They’ve seized on the targeted grazing scam as an excuse for inflicting severe grazing damage to public lands including expanding grazing by sheep and goats. Targeted grazing, just like disease denialism in the past, is being spun by industry zealots at land grant colleges. Imposing dustbowl era targeted grazing practices under the guise of suppressing wildfires is a big part of the Trump BLM’s move to gut the grazing regulations. This threatens to insert disease-infested sheep and goats back into areas where they were long banished. The industry is trying to roll back gains that have been made.

Ending domestic sheep grazing on public lands should be a no-brainer. But nothing to do with public lands livestock grazing is based on logic. It’s based on raw brute force political power and pushback from the industry and its enablers. Domestic sheep grazing continues to prevent wild native sheep from inhabiting millions of acres of mountain ranges and canyons that were their historic domain. The domestic sheep plague rages on. Bighorn herds are in perpetual isolation and lockdown, with deadly consequences if they venture out.


Areas of the Eagle Creek watershed below the earlier avalanche photos, summer 2019. Sheep were repeatedly herded over the small stream and steep sagebrush slopes including a damaged side channel where the Forest Service had placed structures to try to stabilize banks in the past. They trampled soils and streambanks, devoured young aspen and willows, hedged clumps of mature willows, and primed slopes for cheatgrass. Despite the high elevation, some cheatgrass has already invaded from past grazing bouts.

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Salmon River headwaters, summer 2019. A Sawtooth Forest sign touts ripping out a road and putting a fence around a marshy area near a campground. Meanwhile, upstream and downstream of the signed site, sheep ravage the headwaters doing immensely more damage than an old road. Sharp hoofs cut into eroding and collapsing banks. Desertification expands. Springs and the stream outside the fenced area are grossly trampled and polluted with manure. The riverbed substrate is choked with sediment. And everything stinks of sheep.

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Katie Fite is a biologist and Public Lands Director with WildLands Defense.