Colorado sheep ranchers wary of bighorn sheep relocation plans

FRISCO, Colo. (AP) Sheep ranchers and state wildlife officials have reached a tentative truce in a dispute over the relocation of wild bighorn sheep to areas near public grazing lands.

Officials of the state Division of Wildlife have promised to work harder to inform ranchers about bighorn relocation plans.

Ranchers elicited the promise during the group's annual convention on Friday.

''What we are trying to find is, are there ways we can provide protection for bighorn sheep and also keep domestic sheep on the range,'' said Division of Wildlife big-game manager John Ellenberger. ''As for cooperation, we can do that. We haven't done a really good job in the past.''

Ranchers have become increasingly concerned about competition for sheep forage as biologists have tried to enlarge the bighorns' range and increase their populations. Biologists also have blamed domestic sheep for spreading disease.

''You can't deny that there are diseases spread back and forth,'' said Tom McDonnell, natural-resource director of the American Sheep Industry Association.

But he said sheep ranchers are being forced off historic rangeland when bighorn are introduced to new areas.

Often, an environmental study of a proposed reintroduction uncovers a potential conflict between domestic sheep and bighorns, and grazing permits are canceled, McDonnell said.

Other ranchers said they are always required to conduct an environmental analysis before domestic sheep are allowed to graze on public lands, but bighorn introductions are not subjected to the same scrutiny.

Melanie Woolever, a program leader for the U.S. Forest Service bighorn sheep program, said only two ranchers nationwide have lost grazing permits because of the introduction of bighorns, and both received new permits.

With 420,000 sheep, Colorado has the fourth-largest domestic sheep business in the nation, but the industry is threatened by shrinking numbers of ranchers, depressed prices and stricter environmental regulations.

Ellenberger said the bighorn population in Colorado has tripled since the late 1970s to about 7,500 animals, but he said most of the sheep live in small herds, and long-term survival prospects are poor.

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