Domestic flock interactions suspected in wild sheep die-off in Montana, resulting in the closure of another area to hunting.
For the second time in as many months, the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks have come to the decision to close another bighorn sheep hunting unit due to drastically reduced winter survey numbers. The survey, conducted via helicopter in hunt unit 122, resulted in a confirmed total of only 18 bighorns. That number is down at least 90 animals and is the lowest total observed in over 30 years.
Officials representing Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks note the suspected massive die-off is common in wild sheep populations that have been exposed to illnesses like pneumonia contracted through interactions with domestic livestock. Though unable to rule with certainty, in the past these illness related die-offs have been common where domestic animals and wildlife share grazing allotments. The close proximity allows for the transference of communicable diseases.
Western range managers in the public and private sectors continue to discuss and attempt to manage the inevitable interactions between domestic livestock that occupy grazing leases on public land as well as wildlife traveling through or inhabiting privately owned lands. The issue at hand of communicable diseases is not limited to a single species on either side of the fence. Wildlife managers and western ranchers have been working on similar issues with cattle, elk and bison throughout the greater Yellowstone ecosystem for years.
This continues to be a slippery slope in trying to determine which resource is of more importance. Neither private ranchers nor public resource managers can lay claim to being the highest priority. Both play unarguably large roles in the western economy and have far reaching effects when extreme steps, like unit closures or lease restrictions, are taken. The unfortunate reality of the situation is that there may not be a happy medium. States, and their respective voters, may find themselves in the unfavorable position of casting their ballots in favor of one or the other.
For hunters, guides, and the supporting industries it could mean drastically less opportunity, and ultimately economic impact, where these biological conflicts are the most prevalent. Likewise, ranchers with public grazing allotments that have been occupied for generations could potentially find themselves in a situation where their need to supplement grazing through feeding programs would undoubtedly increase their production expenses and ultimately raise wholesale and retail costs for the consumer.
With no clear, hardline, final decision available at this time we can expect to see relative wins and losses on both sides for years to come.