‘A ticking time bomb for a mass die-off’

Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society (RMBS) Executive Director Terry Meyers recently met with High Country News and representatives from Senators Hickenlooper and Bennet’s offices to discuss concerns about a proposed grazing decision in western Colorado.

The Gunnison Bureau of Land Management (BLM) office is proposing to renew grazing permits that jeopardize RBS-21, the large, native bighorn sheep herd in the western San Juan Mountains. Despite concerns raised by Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) managers, RMBS, Wild Sheep Foundation, and others, the BLM issued proposed decisions in August to reauthorize grazing on all 9 allotments analyzed in the Gunnison Domestic Sheep Grazing Permit Renewals EIS.

Comments submitted by CPW on the proposal indicate that even with the proposed implementation of measures to mitigate the risk of contact between bighorn sheep and domestic sheep that unreported and undetected contact events are highly probable, given the presence of stray domestic sheep, foraying bighorn behavior, and contact events within the analysis area, and the rugged and remote terrain. Further, CPW noted that they have documented 25 stray domestic sheep occurrences, 34 bighorn foray events, and seven commingling events between bighorn sheep and domestic sheep within the analysis area. Finally, CPW notes that the decision to renew these grazing permits could influence the availability of 19% of the bighorn sheep hunting licenses in the state.

Read the article here.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife Awards Auction and Raffle Licenses

The Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission selected the recipients of the Big Game Auction and Raffle Licenses for 2022-2026. The RMBS was awarded the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep auction and raffle licenses, the mountain goat raffle license, and one of two raffle pronghorn licenses.

The Big Game Auction and Raffle License Program began in 1989 with an auction and raffle license for both bighorn sheep and mountain goat. Moose auction and raffle licenses were added in 1996, followed by deer, elk, and pronghorn in 2001. Currently there are a total of 18 licenses, one each of auction and raffle for bighorn sheep, mountain goat, and moose, and two each of auction and raffle for deer, elk, and pronghorn. The program has generated over $4.4 million in the last 5 years, breaking the $1 million mark in 2021 for the first time in 2021.

Auction and raffle licenses are awarded to qualifying conservation organizations through an RFP process every five years. Selected organizations must return at least 75% of funds generated through the auctions and raffles to CPW. Organizations may retain the remainder of funds to cover the costs associated with administering auctions and raffles and to utilize for their own conservation work. Each conservation organization has a representative serve on the CPW Project Advisory Committee which meets annually to consider project proposals for funding with the 75% of revenue returned to CPW.

To learn more about the Big Game Auction and Raffle Licence Program, please visit the CPW website.

Wildlife Officials Issue Warning on the Dangers of Mixing Domestic Livestock with Our Wild Bighorn Sheep Herds

Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials expressed concern about the increasingly common practice of using domestic sheep or goats for weed control and wildfire mitigation, as well as the threat posed by hobby flocks of the species. If domestic sheep and goat commingle with bighorn sheep, they may transmit pathogens to the wild sheep that can result in all-age die-offs and low lamb recruitment for decades.

“It only takes one [bighorn] sheep that contracts a disease to hinder an entire herd,” said Chase Rylands, wildlife officer out of Estes Park.

This threat is exacerbated across western Colorado where the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management permit bands of 800-2000 domestic sheep to graze in bighorn sheep range. Numerous die-offs have been documented throughout the state, yet the practice of renewing high-risk grazing permits continues. Read more about the concerns of CPW managers here.

45 th Annual Bighorn Rendezvous – Not What We Expected, But Still A Winner

Typically, this Summer issue would be showcasing the 45 th Annual Bighorn Rendezvous featuring the Member’s meeting, auctions, raffles, speakers, youth events, dinner and capped off with the Governor’s state wide bighorn sheep, Rocky Mountain goat and pronghorn license drawings. The year 2020 will not be remembered as a typical year. The week before the state directed cancellation of large events, the RMBS board of directors reluctantly but wisely decided to cancel the Rendezvous after initiating discussions with the Embassy Suites by Hilton. Fortunately, the Embassy Suites management were good to work with and we were able to offset any loss and negotiated the 46 th Annual Bighorn Rendezvous with them for May 21-22, 2021. That was the first of several important items to be negotiated as the Rendezvous was ‘unplanned’.

The board of directors next petitioned the Secretary of State to change the date of the public drawing to May 16 to be held at the Blue Moon Brewery. With that cleared by the state, a further decision to continue sales until May 13 was made in order to recoup the projected loss of ticket sales that would have occurred at the Rendezvous.

While cancellation of the banquet was certainly a blow to the RMBS this year, unexplainably, ticket sales set significant all-time highs. Ticket sales and amounts were as follows:

Bighorn sheep 7,200 .257 Wby. 650
Mountain goat 1,952 Swarovski 750
Pronghorn 848 .300 Win. 607
Total: $250,000 Total: $50,175
Grand Total: $300,175

The drawing was successfully held as scheduled and with a live broadcast that can be seen on the RMBS website at; www.bighornsheep.org/new-page-1.

The lucky winners are:

  • Optics #1 Steve Bouricius, Colorado, Ticket No. 00084
  • Optics #2 Mark Cathey, Nevada, Ticket No. 00028
  • Optics #3 Christian Blough, New York, Ticket No. 00110
  • Weaver .257 Terry Meyers, Colorado, Ticket No. 00001
  • Weaver .300 Kevin Zepp, Colorado, Ticket No. 00378
  • Pronghorn David Watling, New Mexico, Ticket No. 00089
  • Mountain Goat Thad Barnes, Colorado, Ticket No. 00314
  • Bighorn Sheep Jerome Garcia, New Mexico, Ticket No. 00691

The annual member’s meeting is held each year at the banquet. It provides an opportunity for member’s to be updated on RMBS projects and finances. In lieu of the cancelled meeting we will note that we provided over $50,000 in project funding last year and earmarked another $50,000 for projects that have not yet begun. A detailed project list will be available on the website later this summer. We are very excited to report that we were able to assist both financially and strategically the National Wildlife Federation in completing the first three voluntary domestic sheep grazing allotment retirements in Colorado. Working together we have completed a fourth retirement in 2020, and we are hopeful that we are able to maintain momentum with this win-win resolution of conflicts between wild and domestic sheep.

In addition, the RMBS financial consultant and former board member, Jack Hinds, had planned on presenting an update on the RMBS investment funds. Briefly, he believes that our funds have held up well considering the current conditions effecting the market; in summary:

Current balance: $202,921

Return year to date: -3.22%

Return May 31, 2019 to May 31, 2020: +4.49%

At the end of the day, the goal of each year’s ticket sales and Rendezvous fundraising is to provide funds to support research and projects to benefit Colorado’s bighorn sheep. Despite the challenges that this year has thrown at our collective efforts, those original goals were achieved; and the state’s bighorns are the winners.

ANNUAL CPW AUCTION AND RAFFLE PROJECT ADVISORY COMMITTEE MEETING

For those who may not be familiar with the Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) Auction and Raffle program, non-profit conservation organizations are awarded the opportunity to administer the auctions and raffles for the statewide big game licenses. Organizations are allowed to retain up to 25% of the gross revenue from those auctions and raffles. The remaining 75% is returned to CPW, and that revenue is maintained in accounts for spending specifically on those big game species by the ARPAC. The ARPAC is comprised of representatives from CPW, BLM, USFS, and each conservation organization that administers at least one auction or raffle. The ARPAC meets annually in May to consider proposals for that year.

You can read more at the following link: https://cpw.state.co.us/thingstodo/Pages/RaffleAuction.aspx

Each year Executive Director Terry Meyers attends the annual CPW Auction and Raffle Project Advisory Committee (ARPAC) meeting to consider project proposals. The virtual meeting was held May 20 and hosted by Andy Holland, CPW Big Game Manager. The ARPAC reviewed five projects for bighorn sheep, and one each for mountain goat, and pronghorn that were submitted for consideration. Funding for all projects, totaling $284,000, was approved contingent on final approval by the CPW Director. Details of approved projects will be available on the RMBS website later this summer following final approval.

Wolf Introduction- Position Statement on Proposition 114

The RMBS does not support Ballot Proposition 114 that, if passed on the 2020 Colorado Ballot, would direct the State of Colorado to transplant and restore gray wolves to public lands west of the Continental Divide. Gray wolf transplantation to Colorado is in contradiction to the Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) Commission Resolution 16-01 which endorses natural wolf migration into Colorado and subsequent repopulation of suitable habitat while opposing the intentional release of wolves. CPW professionals have recently confirmed the presence of a wolf pack in northwestern Colorado, underscoring the species ability to migrate to the state.

Background on wildlife management in Colorado: CPW wildlife management decisions conform to the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation—a set of seven foundational principles that represent wildlife values and guides how wildlife is to be appropriately conserved and managed. The model has been widely accepted by wildlife professionals, incorporated into U.S. state agencies policy and procedures, and endorsed by professional organizations and teaching institutions. The Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society (RMBS) supports the North American Model as a proven system of management which has contributed to the abundant wildlife populations we enjoy today.

One of the primary tenets of the North American Model states that wildlife management decisions will be made by trained wildlife professionals using the best-available science rather than emotion, opinion, or conjecture.

Accordingly, and because ballot initiatives subvert longstanding application of the North American Model for Colorado wildlife management, the RMBS does not support Ballot Proposition 114.

Lawsuit challenges Vail development in bighorn sheep habitat

DENVER (AP) — Vail residents fighting to protect habitat for a beleaguered herd of bighorn sheep as developers push to build housing for resort workers have taken their case to state court.

A lawsuit filed this week in Eagle County District Court contends Vail town officials violated local rules when they approved a Triumph Development project to build high-density worker housing along Interstate 70 where the bighorns forage during winter.

The residents also argue that a Vail Resorts employee on the local Planning and Environmental Commission, which approved the project on a 4-3 vote, should have recused himself due to a conflict of interest. Their lawsuit asks Judge Russell Granger to send the case back to town officials with instructions for proper decision-making.

“Developers tried to come up with mitigation. But it doesn’t seem the mitigation measures are sufficient to comply with the code,” which requires the implementation of “all necessary mitigating measures,” attorney Kim Perdue said Thursday.

“My understanding is that there are other sites … that would be better for residents and also not have catastrophic impacts on this herd,” Perdue said.

This battle pits the mountain resort’s economic demands against the needs of wildlife, in this case Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, Colorado’s state animal.

Bighorns once numbering more than 2 million around the west have been declining, hammered by disease — including sickness spread by domestic sheep — as development eclipses bighorn habitat.

The Colorado bighorn population has dwindled to about 6,800, down from about 7,600 in 2012 and 8,000 in 2001, state data shows.

Vail Valley bighorns have decreased to about 5% of their historic numbers, along with other species, and the herd that forages east of Vail has been reduced by 40% over the past 12 years to around 50 bighorns.

Meanwhile, mountain resort operators around the state have been developing properties and struggling to ensure enough housing for workers as tourism and recreation industries expand.

Triumph Development has proposed to construct the housing for Vail on 5.4 acres at one end of a 23.3-acre parcel that Vail obtained from the Colorado Department of Transportation.

Local governments have broad discretion. The lawsuit targets town decision-making on narrow grounds, alleging that proposed “mitigation” measures are not sufficient to comply with town rules aimed at protecting the natural environment and wildlife. The developers’ proposals included the construction of a berm between the housing complex and a meadow where bighorns forage, limited lighting and restricted dog ownership. Residents walking to town would have to use an underpass designed for vehicles to cross I-70.

The lawsuit also alleges town officials gave improper guidance to planning and environmental commission members by asserting they had no choice but to allow the development of the property, owned by Vail, because otherwise their action would amount to an illegal “regulatory taking” of the property.

Vail officials declined to comment on the lawsuit. “We received the complaint, and we have forwarded it to our insurance carrier for review,” assistant town manager Patty McKenny said.

Former Mayor Rob Ford, a longtime resident opposing the construction, said even people who recognize a need for affordable worker housing have been questioning Vail leaders’ decision-making.

“It was not transparent. Residents were lied to. It is a poorly planned project, a crummy project,” Ford said.

The conflict has escalated over the past two years.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologists have provided guidance, warning that bighorns likely would suffer harm and questioning whether mitigation is possible.

Vail officials have countered that the resort needs housing for service workers, in part to create a sense of community and reduce worker driving. Only 20% of Vail’s 8,500 workers live in town. Others commute as far as 75 miles. Houses in Vail cost $1.3 million on average. Renting an apartment typically costs around $1,200 a month.

The Vail Homeowners Association has opposed the development. A 40-member group called Citizens to Protect Our Wildlife asked Gov. Jared Polis for help. The local chamber of commerce asked Polis to stay out of the matter unless he planned to support the construction.

The biggest threat to wild sheep? Domestic sheep

VAIL – A plan to build 61-residential units on bighorn sheep habitat in East Vail recently brought new attention to a dwindling sheep herd native to that area.

Wildlife biologist Gene Byrne studied the local bighorn sheep population in the 1990s using tracking collars. He got to know the herd well and discussed it with the Vail Planning and Environmental Commission in August, including possible reasons for the herd’s decline over the past two decades. The most recent count is 41 sheep, down from 125 in the 1990s.

While the incipient development in East Vail makes Byrne nervous for the future of the herd, he says native sheep are most threatened by their domesticated cousins, wayward “old world” sheep like the one found on the balcony of a home in West Vail this week. The sheep’s owner said it got spooked by a bear and separated from its herd.

“The biggest threat to this bighorn sheep herd is probably not so much development; it’s close association with domestic sheep and pneumonia,” Byrne said. “This is something we really didn’t understand until about 30 years ago, but old world sheep, domestic sheep, carrying pasteurella multocida or other forms of pneumonia, can survive it … but they get in close association with wild bighorn sheep, and they do associate nose to nose, and it’s always fatal to (the bighorn sheep.)”

Byrne said while they didn’t know it at the time, the legislators in Colorado who noted a sharp decline in native sheep populations in the 1880s — prompting them to ban bighorn sheep hunting in 1887 — may have been reacting to a problem created by domestic sheep.

Bighorn sheep were “one of the most common ungulates” found by early settlers in Colorado, Byrne said, “but that was about the time they brought in domestic sheep.”

Local U.S. Forest Service district ranger Aaron Mayville says the Eagle-Holy Cross Ranger District has long been aware of the threat domestic sheep create for native sheep, and the permit for the grazing area from which the sheep found Tuesday had escaped ends well shy of East Vail.

“The herd is in the Davos area right now, and heading (west),” Mayville said Tuesday. “Based on what we know of where the bighorn sheep herd is, and where the domestic herd is, there’s a lot of distance in between.”

Mayville says the Forest Service takes the threat of domestic sheep very seriously when it comes to protecting native sheep.

“It’s explicit in our annual operating instructions that domestic and wild sheep remain separate,” Mayville said.

But Byrne says there are other grazing allotments in the Gore Range, and some of those allotments are a little too close for comfort. An allotment in the Slate Mountain area of the Eagle’s Nest Wilderness runs near an area Byrne observed the East Vail sheep migrating through during collar studies performed in the 1990s.

“I knew that some of those sheep would spend the early part of the winter in Black Creek and Brush Creek and Slate Creek, and then they would make this absolutely incredible migration right across the spine of the Gore,” Byrne said.

“If there was ever an opportunity to buy out those allotments or convert them over to domestic cattle, it would be a very beneficial thing for this herd,” he added.

Mayville said while that’s always a possibility, the Forest Service would have to see a detailed environmental analysis before a use conversion could occur on an allotment.

“Those kinds of things have happened before, but I’ll say it’s pretty rare,” Mayville said.

Pitkin County mulls $32K for bighorn sheep health

In an effort to prevent native bighorn sheep from being in contact with a domestic herd, Pitkin County officials will consider spending $32,000 to eliminate a sheep grazing allotment in the upper Crystal River.

The county’s commissioners and the Open Space and Trails board will discuss the option on Tuesday, according to a statement sent Friday. They would be part of a deal the National Wildlife Federation has negotiated with rancher Joe Sperry of Delta, whose family has been using the more than 33,000 acre allotment near Marble for decades, officials said. The federation’s Wildlife Conflict Resolution Program has been retiring grazing allotments for 20 years in the Northern Rockies (about 1.4 million acres to date) but only expanded into Colorado in late 2017, Bob McCready, a program manager with the NWF, said in the statement.

Domestic sheep carry a number of respiratory pathogens that can, and often do, decimate entire herds of bighorn sheep, McCready said. Sperry’s flock of nearly 1,000 ewes and lambs is being relocated.

The $32,000 from Pitkin County equals the amount committed from Two Shoes Ranch and support from the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society.

Pitkin County Open Space and Trails identified bighorn resiliency as a goal in the Carbondale to Crested Butte Trail Plan, adopted by county commissioners in December.

“We asked wildlife experts what we could do that would be most beneficial for the bighorn herd up the Crystal,” said Gary Tennenbaum, director of Open Space and Trails. “They advised us to focus on eliminating the herd’s interaction with domestic sheep. The National Wildlife Federation has been instrumental in making this happen, but I also give a lot of the credit to Mr. Sperry for agreeing to give up a long-held allotment for the benefit of native bighorns.”

Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society in the News

“The RMBS exists to promote the science-based management of the bighorn sheep, educate the public about their life and habitat, and assure the sportsman’s rights in proper opportunities.”

The RMBS continues to play an important role in the future of Colorado’s Bighorn sheep through various activities in support of our mission statement. It is important that the RMBS membership is aware of these actions, not only to be informed conservators of Colorado’s state animal, but also as a conduit for sharing the challenges and successes for its survival.

From its inception in 1975, the RMBS has provided assistance to Colorado’s Division of Wildlife and recently, Parks and Wildlife, through funding and managerial input in support of studies, habitat improvement and increasing opportunities for bighorn sheep hunter’s. With the primary goal of increasing and enhancing bighorn sheep herds in Colorado, it has become clearly evident to the RMBS that the number one risk to this goal is the transmission of respiratory disease from domestic sheep to bighorn sheep in the wild. This risk is foremost when domestic sheep share the same range as bighorns during the summer grazing period in the high country.

Specifically, Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae, plays a primary role in the cause and spread of pneumonia in bighorn sheep. A statistically fatal disease to wild sheep.

In response, the RMBS has funded projects ranging from area separation fences to transplanting bighorns, in order to help provide solutions to this problem. Other agencies have examined the possibility of developing vaccines to combat the disease. These efforts have all fallen short and bighorn populations continue to fluctuate in response.

Sometimes, however, the best solution is the most straight forward one. Working with the National Wildlife Federation, the RMBS along with other contributors provided funding to help secure the retirement of two domestic sheep grazing allotments on the Rio Grande National Forest in a critical bighorn sheep range.

This represents an initial step in a solid strategy to eliminate the risk of disease transmission between domestic sheep and wild sheep. Your support of Colorado’s bighorn sheep through your membership in the RMBS helps make this progress possible.

Thank you, RMBS Board of Directors