BOISE, Idaho (AP) -- A federal judge has ordered a western Idaho rancher to keep his sheep off his family's traditional grazing ground on public land, at least temporarily, to protect wild native bighorns.

U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill ruled Wednesday that a pact between a Salmon River rancher and the state to keep his domestic herd separate from bighorns on a Bureau of Land Management allotment fell short of a 2009 law aimed at helping Idaho's ranching industry and protecting the native wild sheep.

The Wilderness Society, Western Watersheds Project and Hells Canyon Preservation Council had all contended that a bighorn herd near Riggins was in danger of catching deadly diseases if the allotment near Partridge Creek opened to domestic herds on schedule Thursday.

The number of Idaho bighorns has dwindled by half since 1990 to about 3,500 after several mass die-offs. Wildlife managers believe bighorns can catch diseases such as pneumonia when they come into contact with domestic sheep. Winmill said he was trying to prevent more outbreaks.

"Irreversible damage is possible here," Winmill wrote in his 17-page ruling. "Bighorns could become infected and roam far up-river in the Salmon River drainage, infecting the other native bighorns along the way, causing large-scale losses."

The order is in place until at least Nov. 2, when Winmill plans another hearing.

This year, Idaho lawmakers passed a plan requiring the state Department of Fish and Game director to certify that the risk of disease transmission between bighorn and domestic sheep was "acceptable for the viability of the bighorn sheep" once ranchers and the state had crafted Best Management Practices, or BMPs, to keep the two species apart.

The state and rancher Mick Carlson, whose family has grazed the Partridge Creek allotment since 1937, negotiated such an agreement in August. Among other things, he agreed to have two herders, three guard dogs and three herding dogs with each band of sheep. He was also allowed to kill bighorns that wandered into his herd.

In his ruling Winmill said that agreement relied on voluntary compliance and could not be enforced by the Bureau of Land Management.

"The director here certified that the risk has been reduced to an acceptable level," the judge wrote. "Acceptable to who? Acceptable under what standard?

"These questions are not answered," Winmill added. "There is no certification in this case that upon implementation of the BMPs, the risk of disease transmission will be acceptable for the viability of the bighorn sheep."

State Fish and Game officials did not respond to a request for comment.

Jon Marvel, director of Western Watersheds in Hailey, said Winmill's order underlined the weakness of Idaho's new law.

"These Best Management Practices are, first of all, voluntary, and second, there is no testimony in the record from any scientist that concludes that they will be effective in protecting bighorn sheep."

The Nez Perce Tribe, which opposes the grazing on its traditional homeland, called the decision a victory for bighorns.

"The use of BMPs to try and create separation between domestic and bighorn sheep in occupied bighorn sheep habitat is not supported by scientific literature or scientists," said Brooklyn Baptiste, Vice-Chairman of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee.

Carlson, who has already been barred from grazing on nearby U.S. Forest Service allotments, argued in court that he cannot run his operation in a profitable manner if more than 800 of his sheep are kept away from Partridge Creek.

A phone call to Carlson was not returned, but in court he contended it would cost him about $9,000 if he was forced to restrict his sheep to his private ground along the Salmon River and to the south in Emmett.

Winmill ordered plaintiffs to post a $9,000 bond to cover Carlson's possible costs and damages, should the court later determine the temporary restraining order was inappropriate.

Recommended for you