Bighorn Debate Not Just About Idaho


By Margaret Soulen Hinson, Idaho Sheep Producer and American Sheep Industry Association President

What do a textile worker in North Carolina, a Lance Corporal in Iraq, a young father from Peru and a restaurateur in New York have in common? Easy. They’re all part of the thousands of workers in the United States that owe their livelihoods and sometimes their lives to America’s sheep industry. And that’s why Rep. Mike Simpson is right in seeking a “time out” in the environmentalists’ mad rush to destroy a quarter of that industry. 

In 2007, those same environmentalist groups began an effort to limit sheep grazing within a small portion of Hell’s Canyon, along Idaho’s western border. They were successful far beyond their wildest dreams, with administrative and court decisions ordering the ultimate removal of 13,000 sheep from the Payette National Forest, all based upon unsubstantiated data that domestic sheep can spread a pneumonia-like disease to wild bighorn sheep in the open range. Now, they are hell-bent to extend that decision to all public lands where domestic sheep may interact with their wild cousins, that would mean the removal of 43 percent of the sheep that graze on national forest – that’s 23 percent of all domestic sheep in the country. Lose that amount and you lose the basis of the industry itself – not only the sheep producers and their employees but also the woolen mills, meat packing facilities and even cosmetic manufacturers that use lanolin. 

The facts are these. Domestic sheep and bighorns have lived in the same general neighborhoods for many years. While disease transmission has been documented in forced close confines, it has never been substantiated in the wild. In fact, there have been repeated die-offs of bighorns where there had been no possibility of interaction with domestic sheep.  Scientists are increasingly optimistic about a vaccine that will eradicate the disease and there are ongoing talks between biologists, bighorn enthusiasts and domestic sheep producers on how to best manage both species to further minimize the possibility of random contact. 

That is the context within which Rep. Simpson seeks a five-year delay in extending the Forest Service’s decision for a remote part of Idaho to the rest of the West. As was the case in wolf management, the environmental community is over-reaching without justification and Congress is, again, right to rein them in. Predictably, these groups are screaming bloody murder, ignoring Rep. Simpson’s strong track record on their behalf and claiming his bias toward agriculture and natural-resource industries. However, when you recognize the value of wool uniforms to our troops, the increasing demand for lamb as a sustainable source of protein to feed the world and all the jobs that are dependent upon the humble sheep, that’s far beyond pandering to a local industry. That’s leadership. Rep. Simpson exemplifies it and we need it.   


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