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Oct 21, 2019

Protecting Bighorns in the Elk Range of Colorado

NWF Partners Visiting the Allotment
NWF Partners Visiting the Allotment

Rising high above the Colorado Mountain Towns towns of Aspen, Carbondale and Marble Colorado is the Elk Range, are some of the highest and most rugged mountains in the United States. There are the two Maroon Bells, Pyramid Peak, Snowmass Mountain and Capitol Peak, all over 14,000 feet. Nestled among these giants are many more peaks over 13,000 feet, named and unnamed. Separating the peaks are high alpine meadows, steep valleys, ice-cold lakes and streams that provide critical habitat for one of the highest priority bighorn sheep herds in Colorado as well as mountain goats, elk and other high-elevation species such as yellow-bellied marmot, american pika, white-tailed ptarmigan, brown-capped rosy finch, and nesting peregrine falcons. And up until this year, when NWF finalized the retirement of the 33,000 acre Upper Crystal River grazing allotment, 2000 domestic sheep could also be found roaming this fragile landscape between the months of July and September.

Unfortunately, domestic sheep carry a number of pathogens that if transmitted to bighorn sheep, can cause the die-off of most or even all of that bighorn herd, something that occurred in the Eastern and Western Snowmass bighorn herds in the Elk Range in the late 1980s. At that time, the total size of the two herds numbered over 450 individuals, but after likely contact with domestic sheep, the herds experienced an all-age die off, the effects of which persist to this day. The good news is that the western herd is slowly recovering, numbering approximately 200 individuals, but the western herd is languishing at approximately 60 animals and continues to decline. Although somewhat speculative, it is possible that this herd was re-infected with another strain of the pathogen causing another die-off event.

The only effective strategy to address this conflict, is to create separation between domestic and wild sheep. The historic population of bighorn sheep the western United States was 2 million which due to extreme overhunting in the late 1800s and disease over the last several decades has dwindled to 65,000 animals nation-wide and 7,000 animals in Colorado. Without removing the risk of contact between domestic and wild sheep, it is unlikely that the state-wide population will be able to grow beyond 7,000 and of course, there is the risk that the population could decline as we’ve seen with the Western Snowmass Herd. To build on our success in the Elk Range, NWF has identified approximately 20 very high risk domestic sheep allotments that if removed, would provide the conditions for the recovery of the species in large areas of southwestern Colorado.

The approach taken by The National Wildlife Federation’s Wildlife Conflict Resolution Program is to negotiate a fair-market price with interested ranchers who hold domestic sheep public land grazing allotments in exchange for retiring their right to graze that allotment. In the case of the Upper Crystal Allotment and the Snowmass bighorn herd, NWF staff approached the permit-holder and negotiated the retirement of his permit. He was happy with the outcome and told us “this was a good business decision for me and a win-win. My sheep had gotten a lot of attention and with the money I received from NWF, I was able to buy another permit for an area farther away from bighorns which makes the wildlife people happy.” The outcome is that the only domestic sheep allotment in the Elk Range has been removed virtually eliminating the threat of pathogen transmission to wild sheep.

This NWF approach is completely voluntary and in our view, provides an equitable solution for ranchers who hold permits for high conflict grazing allotments while also meeting wildlife conservation goals by removing livestock from these high priority areas. This market-based approach recognizes the economic value of livestock grazing permits and fairly compensates livestock producers for retiring their leases. After twenty years of success, the National Wildlife Federation has established a new national model for resolving intractable conflicts between livestock and wildlife habitat retiring to date, over 1.5 million acres of public land grazing permits, an area the size of Delaware.

High Alpine Habitat in the Allotment
High Alpine Habitat in the Allotment
Upper Crystal River Allotment Alpine Meadows
Upper Crystal River Allotment Alpine Meadows
Jul 24, 2019

Adopt A Wildlife Acre Program Update

Partners Visiting the Crooked Creek Allotment
Partners Visiting the Crooked Creek Allotment

Where conflicts between livestock and wildlife are prolonged and intractable, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) believes that public land grazing retirements can provide an equitable solution for ranchers and wildlife interests. In coordination with federal land managers, the NWF negotiates with livestock producers to retire livestock grazing allotments that experience chronic conflict with wildlife, especially wolves, grizzly bears, bison, and bighorn sheep. This market approach recognizes the economic value of livestock grazing permits and fairly compensates producers for retiring their leases. This approach establishes an important new national model for resolving conflicts between livestock and wildlife habitat.

Most recently, the NWF completed the retirement of three grazing allotments in Idaho that will eliminate the risk of disease transmission between domestic and wild sheep. The Crooked Creek, Mahogany Butte and Cedar Point-Eightmile domestic sheep allotments are vast and consist of 140,000 acres of prime sagebrush habitat in southern Idaho. For the past two years, NWF has been working to reach an agreement on these three allotments as domestic sheep permitted on the allotments pose a significant risk of disease contact to wild bighorn sheep in both the South Beaverhead and the South Lehmhi Mountains. In addition, these allotments are within priority sage grouse habitat and are located within the “High Divide” wildlife corridor—critical habitat for expanding large carnivore populations that are pioneering East along this unique East-West wildlife pathway. This agreement is unique in that Cedar Point-Eightmile will be retired, while Crooked Creek and Mahogany Butte will be converted to cattle grazing, although at a significantly reduced amount to benefit wildlife.

Apr 29, 2019

Adopt A Wildlife Acre Program Update

View of Retired Grazing Allotments
View of Retired Grazing Allotments

Following nearly two decades of success in the Northern Rockies eliminating conflicts between livestock and wildlife on 1.3 million acres public lands, in 2017 the National Wildlife Federation expanded its Adopt an Acre program to Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah. Like in the Northern Rockies, over the last century populations of bighorn sheep populations in Colorado have dramatically declined to small remnants of their historic numbers due largely to a number of diseases that are transmitted from domestic sheep to their wild cousins. Once infected, bighorn herds can experience an all age die-off that wipe our 60-90% of the herd. Since bringing on a new employee to manage the Southern Rockies and Great Basin region, we have been laying the groundwork necessary to achieve our goals of retiring several hundred thousand acres of grazing allotments over the coming decade. Working with partners from a number of state wildlife agencies and partner organizations, we have identified the domestic sheep allotments that pose the greatest threats to bighorns developed a network of Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management personnel that manage these allotments. Following this background work, we began reaching out to the ranchers that hold the permits for this high risk grazing allotments.

The first fruit of these labors is our April agreement with a multi-generation ranching family to retire their two domestic sheep allotment on the Rio Grande National Forest, high in the South San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado. The Cornwall and Willow Mountain allotments cover approximately 9,000 acres and fall directly in the middle of the core range of a very high priority herd of bighorns. The total cost of this deal is $82,500 of which we have, raised $40,000. To complete our commitment to the ranching family, we have a goal of raising an additional $42,500. At approximately $9 per acre, we believe this is a very good value for permanently protecting one of Colorado’s highest priority bighorn herds. This is the first of what will be many thousands of acres of grazing allotment retirements in Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah as step by step, we work to restore bighorn sheep to the Southern Rockies, the Colorado Plateau and the Great Basin. As always, we are grateful to our supporters for investing in this innovative conservation solution, we could not do it without your help.

View of Retired Grazing Allotments
View of Retired Grazing Allotments

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