RENO, Nev. (AP) — Wildlife biologists say they're concerned that contact with domestic sheep could put an endangered population of Sierra bighorn sheep at risk for disease. Sheep ranchers call it a thinly disguised effort to close grazing allotments on federal land.
"They don't care about those bighorn," said Smith Valley sheep rancher Fred Fulstone. "It's a land grab. They're doing it all over the West."
The issue centers on a population of Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep living in the rugged high country near Lundy Canyon, just east of Yosemite National Park.
The bighorns, listed as an endangered species in 2000, are on a path to recovery that some say could be imperiled by the close proximity of domestic sheep that Fulstone and other sheep ranchers graze on federal land.
Domestic sheep carry organisms that cause a deadly pneumonia-like disease. The worry is the disease could spread to an apparently recovering herd of bighorns that has increased from about 125 animals to 350 over the last five years.
The danger is acute during mating season, when bighorn rams wander far and are particularly likely to mix with domestic sheep and even attempt to mate with them, critics said.
The California Department of Fish and Game has asked federal permission to shoot any bighorns determined to have come in contact with domestic sheep as a last resort to prevent infection of the herd.
"That's the measure we hope we don't have to resort to," Tom Stephenson, a fish and game biologist told the Reno Gazette-Journal.
The "easy solution" would be closure of federal grazing allotments in the affected area, Stephenson said, but he said such a step is not likely in the near future.
Instead, the state is trying to make sure the two sheep populations remain separated — in part through monitoring movement of the animals with the use of radio tracking collars attached to both bighorn rams and domestic ewes.
Daniel Patterson, an ecologist with the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity, is pushing for the removal of domestic sheep from bighorn habitat. The center has threatened to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over what it calls inadequate progress in the recovery of the Sierra Nevada bighorn.
"The logical approach is to modify the grazing up there," said Paul McFarland, executive director of Friends of the Inyo.
Officials with the U.S. Forest Service, which manages Fulstone's grazing allotments, said they have no intention of shutting down sheep grazing in that part of Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest.
"Grazing is a very viable and appropriate use of national forest lands," said Erin O'Connor, spokeswoman for the Forest Service's Intermountain Region based in Ogden, Utah.