Forest Service Delays Decision on Wilderness Sheep Grazing

March 12, 2017 04:36 PM

The U.S. Forest Service has delayed its expected announcement on whether to continue allowing domestic sheep grazing in Colorado's largest wilderness area.

In February 2016, the Forest Service released a proposed decision that determined domestic sheep grazing would continue in the Weminuche Wilderness in southwest Colorado, despite environmental concerns against using public lands for privately-held sheep grazing businesses.

Matt Janowiak, district ranger for the Columbine District in the San Juan Mountains, previously said a final decision would be announced this winter after a public comment period.

However, Forest Service spokeswoman Ann Bond told The Durango Herald on Wednesday that the Forest Service is still responding to public comments, and the final decision remains under internal review.

"We expect to release these documents to the public in the next few months," Bond said. "At that time, a 45-day objection period will begin, whereby interested citizens and groups who have commented earlier during the analysis process will have an opportunity to comment further."

In the 780-square-mile Weminuche Wilderness, the Forest Service proposed the continued use of six active grazing allotments, allowing almost 50,000 acres for 5,600 permitted sheep.

According to the Environmental Assessment, the high country and alpine tundra that serves as summer range for domestic sheep was "generally in good condition," and warranted the continued use of grazing.

Those challenging the grazing allotments contend that domestic sheep can transmit deadly diseases to native, wild bighorns. They say the Forest Service's environmental study downplays such impacts.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife last fall formed a working group consisting of multiple stakeholders that meets quarterly to discuss the issues involved between domestic and wild sheep management.

Lawrence Lujan, a Forest Service spokesman based in Denver, said the group will help better inform land managers on domestic sheep grazing conflicts throughout Colorado.

"It's a discussion that will help us view the other angles of this issue and help us make balanced future decisions," Lujan said.

In a separate but related project, Parks and Wildlife announced this past week it would work with the Forest Service on a five-year study to better understand the reclusive bighorn sheep.

On Monday, a helicopter crew will begin efforts to locate and capture bighorns to tag them with a GPS collar. In this corner of the Weminuche Wilderness, there are only about 70 bighorns, but the crew hopes to tag at least 10 animals in two days.

"We don't know a lot about how these bighorns use the landscape," Brad Winmeister, a terrestrial biologist with Parks and Wildlife, said in a news release. "We know that it's good habitat, but we'd like to get more information to help us with management plans."

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