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Bighorn sheep health worries may cut grazing land

Published on July 17, 2012 3:01AM

Last changed on July 17, 2012 4:50AM


Wenatchee World via Associated Press

WENATCHEE, Wash. (AP) -- Mark Martinez is a third generation sheep rancher. He'd like it if his two sons would consider joining the business but, he says, "it's highly questionable" there will be a sheep business left much longer.

That's because of a 2010 decision by the U.S. Forest Service that could drastically reduce the acreage available to domestic sheep. And that, Martinez says, could put his family out of the sheep business.

"I don't know if we're going to have to have a fire sale and be done with it," says the Moxee-based rancher whose family has grazed thousands of sheep on national forest land since the 1930s.

The decision, which aims to cut grazing space on the Payette National Forest in Idaho, addresses concerns that domestic sheep, if they come in contact with bighorns, may transmit a fatal lung disease to the bighorns. The decision directly affects the Payette National Forest in Idaho but it is prompting officials on other national forests to begin detailed assessments of how grazing areas of bighorn sheep and domestic sheep may overlap, Forest Service officials say.

Finishing an assessment on the Wenatchee-Okanogan National Forest is one to two years away, said Maura Laverty, range and invasive plant program manager for the agency in Wenatchee. One outcome could be the loss of portions of domestic sheep grazing allotments on the forest.

Other outcomes might be less harsh. Officials could adjust allotment boundaries and permitted grazing times, for example, said Donny Martorello, bighorn sheep manager for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife for 12 years.

The Martinez family, operating as S. Martinez Livestock, has permits for nine allotments on the Wenatchee-Okanogan National Forest.

Currently, Martinez said, the family is using seven of those. Locally, three are on the Wenatchee River District and one is on the Entiat Ranger District.

The local allotments range from 7,000 to 40,000 acres. The Martinez operation is the only business that has permits to graze sheep on the Wenatchee-Okanogan National Forest.

In exchange for permits, the business pays a fee based on the number of ewes with a lamb and on the number of days the sheep will graze on an allotment.

The transmitted lung disease has not killed any bighorn sheep locally, said David Volsen, wildlife biologist for the Wenatchee District of the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Local bighorn sheep, in herds of 100 to 120, are near Swakane Canyon, Chelan Butte and Manson. Only the sheep in the Swakane area are close enough to come into contact with Martinez' sheep, Volsen said.

Martinez said his company modified its grazing routes in the 1990s to minimize any mingling with the Swakane herd.

Shepherds must be vigilant in looking for big-horn sheep. If any are spotted, Fish and Wildlife experts must be notified and they may attempt to coax the bighorns out of the area, Martorello said. Overlap, if it occurs, is likely to involve a young ram who wanders from the main herd.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.


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