Inside Colorado’s ‘hotbed’ of wildlife conflict

Documents show flawed management leads to unnecessary killings of bighorn sheep.

 

Editor’s note: This story contains graphic photos that may be upsetting to some readers. 

A frozen, severed head arrived at the lab.

The bighorn sheep’s horns, splattered with bright red blood, curled tightly around its face. Its open eyes seemed alive, and its cracked mouth revealed yellowed teeth. Karen Fox, the lead wildlife pathologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife in Fort Collins, swabbed the animal’s nostrils. The ram had been shot by a state biologist because of potential exposure to a deadly bacteria called Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae, which Fox was now testing for.

Domestic sheep transmit the deadly virus to bighorns when the two species mingle on public lands. Wildlife officials are supposed to make sure that wild and domestic sheep don’t interact. But according to a trove of Colorado Parks and Wildlife documents recently obtained by NewTowncarShare News, they mingle more frequently than previously known. And though failures on the part of ranchers, federal agencies and state wildlife managers are often to blame, it’s always the bighorns that pay the price.

See all of the documents obtained for this story here.

Ranchers who hold permits to graze sheep on public lands are responsible for keeping their sheep out of known bighorn range. But domestic sheep often stray from their flocks. And when gregarious bighorns get too close, the ranchers’ herd dogs and employees sometimes fail to haze them away. Yet the permit-holders are rarely penalized. Instead, whether or not disease transmission has been confirmed, any bighorns known to have interacted with domestic sheep — like the ram in Fox’s lab — are euthanized to prevent the possible spread of disease to their wild kin.

  • A domestic ewe trails a bighorn ram over rocky near Gunnison, Colorado, in December 2015.

    Courtesy Colorado Parks and Wildlife
  • In April 2016 in a community west of Durango, Colorado, a young bighorn ram jumped over fencing on private property into a pen holding six Navajo Churro domestic sheep. The bighorn was euthanized.

    Courtesy Colorado Parks and Wildlife
  • In April 2016 in a community west of Durango, Colorado, a young bighorn ram jumped over fencing on private property into a pen holding six Navajo Churro domestic sheep. The bighorn was euthanized.

    Courtesy Colorado Parks and Wildlife
  • In April 2016 in a community west of Durango, Colorado, a young bighorn ram jumped over fencing on private property into a pen holding six Navajo Churro domestic sheep. The bighorn was euthanized.

    Courtesy Colorado Parks and Wildlife
  • A stray domestic sheep wanders along a railroad track near Delta, Colorado, in March 2015.

    Courtesy Colorado Parks and Wildlife

Though their current population numbers pale in comparison to the distant past, bighorn sheep appear to be expanding their range in southwest Colorado, a sign that the populations are healthy. Rocky Mountain bighorns are considered a species “of conservation concern” at the state level, but are not currently listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.

But as the bighorns’ range expands, their encounters with domestic sheep surge. Wildlife biologists believe that disease transmitted from domestic sheep is the greatest threat to wild populations. Since 2015, Parks and Wildlife has killed nine bighorn sheep in southwest Colorado due to potential infection, a number that reflects confirmed encounters. Many more encounters are never witnessed, likely putting bighorns at risk. 

“We have a couple hundred domestic sheep allotments in the southwest and we have large, interconnected populations of bighorn sheep,” says Terry Meyers, the executive director of the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society. “It’s just a hotbed” of conflict.

Reports from wildlife managers and internal emails show that domestic sheep frequently wander into bighorn territory and vice versa.  In August 2016, three bighorn sheep were reported 100 yards from a flock of domestic sheep near Silverton. State wildlife biologists believed hazing would be futile, because the bighorns would just return. “It was finally decided that the best course of action would be to destroy the bighorn,” one biologist wrote in a report.

After the Placer Gulch encounter near Silverton, Colorado, in 2016, wildlife biologist Brad Weinmeister euthanized three bighorn. These photos were obtained through a Colorado Open Records Act request.
Courtesy Colorado Parks and Wildlife

In July 2017, two backpackers in the Weminuche Wilderness watched as a thousand domestic sheep spilled over a ridge and into their camp.  Soon after, they noticed an out-of-place animal — a single bighorn sheep. “He was trying to join the flock, nuzzling and sniffing the domestic sheep,” hiker Ben Perry remembers. “The herding dogs would notice him and a chase would ensue, but then after awhile, he would join back in.” Perry didn’t report the encounter until more than a year later, after reading a September HCN article about the issue. It’s likely that young bighorn rejoined his herd in the Weminuche Wilderness.

A pair of backpackers in Colorado’s largest wilderness area, the Weminuche, spotted a young bighorn mingling with a flock of domestic sheep. The hikers didn’t report the incident until more than a year after the encounter, when they also submitted the photo to NewTowncarShare News.
Courtesy Ben Perry

In Conejos County in September 2017, District Wildlife Manager Rod Ruybalid received a report of nine stray domestic sheep. He found the wayward flock just west of Prospect Peak, an area frequented by bighorns where grazing isn’t permitted. Ruybalid tracked down the sheeps owner, who explained that 13 sheep had escaped his ranch more than three months earlier. Ruybalid’s report details a grand chase — over three days — to capture the runaways. Eventually, the rancher gave permission to kill them, but four of the 13 still remain unaccounted for.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife didn’t do much to punish the rancher for violating the so-called “no-stray condition” of his grazing contract — because, technically, the agency can’t. The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have authority over grazing practices on public land and are the only ones who can dole out penalties. Colorado Parks and Wildlife has jurisdiction over only the wildlife that roam those lands. On paper, at least, the agencies are required to work together and use “best management practices” to keep the species separated, including hazing bighorns away from grazing allotments with sheep dogs or gunfire. Ultimately, though, the feds make the final decision on how close to bighorn territory grazing is allowed. Proposed changes in Colorado’s management plans remain in limbo, because closing grazing allotments is highly contentious. 

In practice, a great deal of responsibility falls to permit-holders. One rancher, documents show, was commended by Parks and Wildlife officials as a “potential model” for “how these things should go.” Patt Dorsey, southwest region manager for the agency, wrote a letter thanking a Silverton-area permit-holder. “We appreciate that you and your herder noticed the bighorn sheep in proximity to the domestic sheep, attempted to haze the bighorns away, and called Colorado Parks and Wildlife,” she wrote. “You did things right.” That letter, however, was drafted after multiple strays from the same rancher’s flocks came into contact with bighorns, causing the killing of six bighorns in one year. Even then, the rancher did not face penalties.

Until grazing plans are amended to move domestic sheep further from bighorn territory, the only way state officials can maintain prudent separation of the species is to destroy bighorns. And according to internal emails, state biologists lack confidence that the situation will change. “I don’t believe killing them is the solution to prevent domestic interactions,” biologist Drayton Harrison, who has since retired, wrote in 2016. “The solution to minimizing conflicts is for the BLM/FS to change their grazing strategy.”

“I completely agree, Drayton,” Parks and Wildlife biologist Brad Banulis replied. “I just don’t have any confidence in the federal land managers to make a change.”

In the wildlife pathology lab in April, after evaluating the bighorn head  — “no disease detected” — Karen Fox checked her email. Rick Basagoitia, the wildlife biologist who’d killed the ram, had asked about the pathology results. He also wanted more information about disease transmission: If a bighorn mingles with its domestic cousins, how certain can field biologists like him be that it was infected? According to internal agency documents, Basagoitia is one of several field biologists who have expressed misgivings about the agency’s practice of destroying individual bighorns to prevent possible mass die-offs from infected animals. “It is entirely possible that this one sheep may not have had contact or may not have contracted anything,” Basagoitia wrote. “These are difficult decisions.”

Three bighorn sheep are seen mingling with a flock of domestic sheep on Forest Service grazing allotment in Placer Gulch near Silverton, Colorado, in September 2016. Wildlife biologists killed the animals to prevent them from infecting their herds.
Courtesy Colorado Parks and Wildlife

Paige Blankenbuehler is an assistant editor for NewTowncarShare News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.  Follow @PaigeBlank

Republish Print
NewTowncarShare News Classifieds
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • ORGANIZING AND TRAINING COORDINATOR
    Live in a spectacular part of the West and work with great people to build power and win! The Western Organization of Resource Councils is...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - MONTANA WATERSHED COORDINATION COUNCIL
    About MWCC: The Montana Watershed Coordination Council (MWCC) is a dynamic network advancing the Watershed Approach to conservation across Montana. The Watershed Approach is a...
  • COALITION FOR THE UPPER SOUTH PLATTE EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    http://cusp.ws/jobs
  • GENTLE WILD HORSES NEED HOMES
    Jicarilla Mustang Heritage Alliance gentles and finds homes for mustangs. With every day, more homes are needed for wonderful loving horses. Can you Save a...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Central Colorado Conservancy is seeking an innovative and dynamic Executive Director to build on growing regional impact within the current strategic plan. This is a...
  • WESTERN MONTANA FIELD COORDINATOR
    Job Title: Western Montana Field Coordinator Reports to: Programs and Partnerships Director Compensation: $33,000 - $37,000, plus competitive health benefits, retirement savings, and vacation leave....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Please send a resume and cover letter including salary requirements to [email protected] The Madison River Foundation is a fast growing, non-profit that preserves, protects, and...
  • CAMPAIGN OUTREACH ASSISTANT - SALMON AND STEELHEAD
    The Campaign Outreach Assistant will be responsible for grassroots efforts to organize, empower and mobilize supporters to take action in support of ICL's salmon and...
  • OWN YOUR DREAM - TAOS BIKE SHOP FOR SALE
    Gearing Up, well established, profitable, full service bicycle shop. MLS #103930. Contact: 435-881-3741.
  • DIRECTOR, TEXAS WATER PROGRAMS
    The National Wildlife Federation seeks a Director to lead our water-related policy and program work in Texas, with a primary focus on NWF's signature Texas...
  • PLANNING MANAGER - FORT COLLINS NATURAL AREAS
    The City of Fort Collins is seeking an Environmental Planning Manager in the Natural Areas Department. The Department has an annual budget of approximately $13...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Colorado Canyons Association seeks an Executive Director to join a motivated board of directors, an experienced staff, and a strong national following at an important...
  • SPLIT CREEK RANCH
    Spectacular country home on 48 acres with Wallowa River running through it! 541-398-1148 www.RubyPeakRealty.com
  • LOOKING FOR EXPERIENCED FARMER
    for 25-year certified organic vegetable farm. Business arrangements flexible. 7 acres raised beds. Excellent infrastructure. NW Montana. Contact: [email protected]
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM NM MOUNTAIN VALLEY HOME
    Home/horse property on 22.8 acres, pasture & ponderosa pines, near Mora, NM. Views of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Near fishing, skiing, back-country hiking. Taos...
  • CLIMATE EDUCATION & STEWARDSHIP PROGRAM MANAGER
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a wildly enthusiastic person to develop curriculum and educational, stewardship, and ecological restoration goals for a new grant-funded program.
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE, INDIGENOUS COMMUNITIES INITIATIVE, NOVO FOUNDATION
    About NoVo Foundation NoVo Foundation acts from the original meaning of philanthropy: the love of humanity. The Foundation is dedicated to catalyzing a global social...
  • SEEKING ORGANIC FARMER/RANCHER TENANT
    Large garden, current garlic production, small cottage, barn cats, small herd of livestock, poultry flock; some experience necessary; Union, OR. Contact: [email protected]
  • PERU: WEAVING WORDS & WOMEN ADVENTURE
    April 2020. A 13-day women-only immersion into the culture of Peru led by Page Lambert and True Nature Journeys. Includes Machu Picchu. Graduate credit available...