It’s always a special moment to spot our Bighorn sheep stepping nimbly along rugged steep slopes, climbing high while blending in with rocky landscapes.
So we were especially happy to hear that our native Bighorns are the big winners in the announcement on Nov. 7 that domestic sheep will no longer graze a 101,676-acre allotment of public land in the San Juan Mountains, surrounding Silverton to the north, east and south.
The closure is significant in this prime Bighorn habitat because domestic sheep can carry pathogens, specifically a pneumonia-causing bacteria, capable of devastating native Bighorn populations with all-age die-offs. Besides taking out a swath of a herd, pneumonia can be passed on to lambs born later once the herd is carrying the disease. The majority die within a month of birth because lambs lack immunity.
National Wildlife Federation’s Wildlife Conflict Resolution Program Manager Bob McCready said the scale of this agreement is “unrivaled.”
Montrose-based rancher Ernie Etchart and the NWF said the family waived grazing rights in exchange for fair compensation for their 10 permits that allowed their domestic sheep on this alpine tundra every summer.
We imagine this was a tough, thoughtful decision. Grazing domestic sheep is a tradition here and it’s been in Etchart’s family for more than 70 years. It’s not easy to let go of any tradition, especially when it’s part of a longtime livelihood, taking many thousands of sheep over many decades to the open, green meadows in this high country. To have access to this scenic place on top of the world is very special. We’re grateful to the family for letting it go.
In 2016, Colorado Parks and Wildlife euthanized five Bighorns mingling with Etchart’s livestock. Not only does Etchart understand the risk of contagion, he’s straddling the worlds of conserving native Bighorns along with minding his ranching business. He sees both sides.
The conservation of Bighorns has its own unique brand of politics, with ranchers relying on permits and grazing rights. This makes Etchart’s actions even more appreciated.
The Etchart family did the right thing. Etchart has said he’ll use some of the money to graze on private land. This family’s choice has considerably increased the chances for this top-tier Bighorn population to survive.
The San Juans West Bighorn herd in the mountains north of Silverton comprises 400 to 500 animals. As reported in The Durango Herald on Nov. 10, the latest CPW herd management plan said the herd “represents one of only a few indigenous, native Bighorn populations, which have not been substantially supplemented with transplants.”
Ten other permits threaten the San Juans West herd. Colorado had already faced the danger of extinction when about 100 years ago, unregulated hunting and disease from domestic livestock almost wiped out Bighorns. The state’s population has rebounded to about 7,000. And the Etchart/NWF arrangement is one giant step toward protecting our state animal.
The news of the retired allotment came at a celebration of all things Bighorn, where experts talked about the perils as well as the marvelous nature of Bighorns at the Doubletree by Hilton Durango. A short film showed wildlife biologists euthanizing Bighorns in British Columbia that tested positive for the disease that put every other animal in the herd at risk.
Most of the 100 in the room cried softly and looked away with each animal put down. The first one shot looked healthy and spunky. Then another. And another. And even more, killed for the sake of the herd and the species, one that is ecologically fragile with other threats to include development, habitat fragmentation and climate change.
Then longtime local resident George Vandenberg in his cowboy hat and vest with an image of a Bighorn covering the back, stood up and walked over a $10,000 check to the Colorado Bighorn Society. The room erupted in applause and hoots and thanks. Vandenberg’s contribution was the cherry-on-top of the evening with the news that some Bighorns in the San Juans will be spared the high risk of disease.
Thanks to conservationists, ranchers, scientists and people like Vandenberg who realize the value of our native Bighorns and all the efforts to keep them alive right here, where they belong.