Wayne Owens, D-Utah, the man who wants to reintroduce wolves into Yellowstone National Park, now also wants to reintroduce or preserve bighorn sheep in several Utah areas.
But just as Owens' wolf plans upset woolgrowers near Yellowstone because sheep are a favorite wolf snack, his plans for wild bighorns are infuriating Utah sheepherders, too, because it may force the transfer of some domestic flocks.That is because domestic and wild sheep cannot exist on the same ranges together. Domestic sheep carry diseases to which they are immune, but which decimate wild sheep when they make contact.
"It's like the Indians and smallpox from early white settlers," said Kenley Brunsdale, Owens' administrative assistant.
So Owens is asking federal officials to find ways to cancel, buy out or move grazing rights of sheepherders in areas near where he wants the bighorns reintroduced or saved.
Owens wants bighorns reintroduced to the Stansbury Mountains on the West Desert. He also wants better protection for small herds in the San Rafael Swell, the Uinta Mountains, the Mount Naomi Wilderness Area, Desolation Canyon and areas near Canyonlands National Park.
He wrote to the Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management this week saying relatively small numbers of grazing permits - including many that are currently not being used - threaten efforts to protect the bighorn in those areas.
He also requested this week that the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior allocate $80,000 for the effort to better protect the range of bighorns in Utah. (At the same time, he asked for $600,000 to help reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone).
Private groups are also raising money to help buy out sensitive grazing rights, Brunsdale said.
But Clair Acord, executive secretary of the Utah Wool Growers Association, doesn't like Owens' ideas at all. "It will cause problems. Why the hell doesn't he just leave these people alone."
He added, "All he's trying to do is crowd people off the range as far as I can see. These people in these rural areas need this kind of livestock to make a living. If they don't, they're breaking the economy of the area. . . . We will oppose it, period."
Part of the pressure that Owens can apply comes from a bill he and other high-powered Democrats on the House Interior and Insular Affairs are sponsoring to give the BLM and Forest Service $135.5 million for better management of wildlife and environment.
But Owens is asking for better protection of the bighorn to come with the push for extra money.
Brunsdale said he hopes such efforts will avoid decimation of bighorns that took place in the 19th century. He said archaeological evidence shows that Utah once had more bighorn than deer, but the bighorn started dying when pioneers brought domestic sheep to the state.
"Look at almost any petroglyph and you will see a picture of a bighorn sheep. . . . They have found that sheep were a big part of ancient Indian diets."