BOZEMAN (AP) — The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission has approved the state’s first-ever statewide plan for managing bighorn sheep.
Officials say they hope the conservation plan will allow them to keep better tabs on bighorns and find new habitat for the animals.
Some bighorn advocates say the plan gives clear directions to state biologists on how to keep the population viable, but critics say it gives too much power to domestic sheep producers.
Domestic sheep can pass pneumonia and other diseases to bighorns and wildlife managers work to keep bighorns away from domestic sheep.
There are roughly 5,700 bighorns in 45 herds in Montana and the state estimates the population could be increased by nearly 1,000.
The plan specifies that the state would not lobby federal land managers to remove domestic sheep from public land in order to make room for bighorns unless the affected ranchers agree to the plan.
Quentin Kujula of the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission said the provision is critical to moving the plan forward.
But others say that provision effectively gives sheep ranchers veto power over any attempt to expand bighorn habitat.
“I think this plan will maintain the status quo and make it difficult for the expansion of bighorns,” said Bill Mealer, with the Safari Club.
Mealer said domestic sheep ranching would keep bighorns away from the Gravelly Mountains.
However, sheep ranchers including one rancher who leases U.S. Forest Service land in the Gravellys, defended the plan.
“We’re not against bighorns,” said Gravelly-area rancher John Helle. “What we’re against is the propaganda and the attempts of these groups to remove us from land we’ve been ranching on for generations.”
Jim Weatherly of the Montana Wild Sheep Foundation said the plan makes it clear how new bighorn herds can be created.
Weatherly said ranchers already will have to agree with any plan to transplant sheep across the state given how much land they own.
“Everybody has to work together for a sheep transplant to work,” he said.