Pack goat aficionados and bighorn sheep conservationists appear to have struck a compromise in Wyoming’s Shoshone National Forest.
“This is the way we’re supposed to do business, especially in the West,” said Steve Kilpatrick, executive director of the Wyoming Wild Sheep Foundation. “It demonstrates that we can get along if we sit down and talk.”
“Overall, the Shoshone’s decision is a win-win for bighorn sheep conservation and goat packing, as the decision provides ample protection of bighorn sheep herds while still allowing recreational pack goat use on areas of the forest,” said Andrew Irvine, a Jackson, Wyoming, lawyer who represents the North American Packgoat Association.
Pack goat use would be prohibited in occupied core native bighorn sheep habitat in the Shoshone but could be authorized under a permit system in other areas. Domestic sheep grazing would continue to be allowed on two current allotments.
The proposals are part of the forest’s Final Environmental Impact Statement and draft Record of Decision for the use of domestic sheep, goats and pack goats. The rules were developed after the forest was sued in 2015 by the North American Packgoat and Idaho Wool Growers associations.
The proposal is subject to a 60-day objection period.
The Shoshone National Forest has the largest number of bighorn sheep of any national forest, with about 4,550 of the 6,000 bighorn sheep in Wyoming. Northwestern Wyoming contains eight core native bighorn sheep herds, which have never been extirpated and re-populated with transplanted bighorn sheep.
These core native herds include the Clarks Fork, Trout Peak, Wapiti Ridge, Younts Peak, Francs Peak, Targhee, Jackson, and Whiskey Mountain herds, which account for more than 90 percent of the bighorn sheep in the state.
Protecting those herds was the primary concern of regional forester Brian Ferebee. In his record of decision he wrote, “While I appreciate pack goat users’ interest in this form of backcountry recreation, I have chosen to exercise caution and select an alternative that will reduce the risk of contact and potential for disease transmission to the core native bighorn sheep herds on the Shoshone National Forest.
“While there is emerging science to indicate that pack goats may present less of a disease transmission risk, only a small number of scientific studies have been done specific to the risk of disease transmission from pack goats,” Ferebee added. “The magnitude of the consequences if disease were to be transmitted from pack goats to bighorn sheep places the risk of allowing pack goat use within occupied habitat for core native bighorn sheep herds beyond an acceptable level.”
“The biggest issue in the West for wild sheep is disease,” Kilpatrick said. “They are somewhat imperiled.”
Irvine countered that, “While NAPgA does not believe the limited risk of disease transmission from pack goats to bighorn sheep warrants closure of any of the forest to goat packing, it recognizes the desire to mitigate against any potential risk of disease transmission to bighorn sheep, and believes the Shoshone has achieved that desire with its decision.”
Pack goat response
Newly elected Packgoat Association president Curtis King said his organization has worked closely with the Forest Service and bighorn sheep conservation groups to find common ground since filing its lawsuit.
“We’ve never been a difficult group to work with,but we’re somewhat frustrated,” King said.
That frustration comes from what King said is the fact that there’s never been a disease transmission or bighorn sheep die-off caused by a pack goat coming into contact with a bighorn or mountain goat.
“The science does not support that goats are a danger to bighorn sheep,” King said. “I believe the Forest Service is erring on the side of caution, and I understand that.”
But he warned bighorn sheep wildlife groups, as well as other national forests across the West, not to take the group’s acquiescence as a sign of approval for pack goat restrictions.
“They cannot argue this is a scientific fact, and we’ve been doing this since 1970,” King said.
Two of the Shoshone National Forest’s core native herds have suffered significant die-offs in the past due to bacterial pneumonia. The Jackson herd, on the Bridger-Teton National Forest, was hit in 2002, and the Whiskey Mountain herd has suffered through several outbreaks of the disease. Managers also suspect that disease played a role in a population decline in the southern Absaroka Mountains during 2011–13.
Domestic sheep are known to carry bacteria that can infect and kill bighorns, however scientists have been unable to narrow the deaths down to a specific pathogen.
The science tying bighorn deaths to pack goats is much thinner. A study published in June by lead researcher Thomas Besser, of Washington State University, showed that although bighorn sheep could contract pneumonia from pack goats the “severity of the disease was markedly milder” than when the sickness is caused by domestic sheep.
The Wyoming Game & Fish Department conducted capture operations for all bighorn sheep herds on the Shoshone National Forest for disease surveillance and other purposes from 2011-2017. The results indicate that all of the herds harbor an array of pathogens that have been identified as being factors in bighorn sheep pneumonia outbreaks.
The results of this disease surveillance work do not diminish the concern for disease transmission from domestic sheep, domestic goats, or pack goats to bighorn sheep on the Shoshone National Forest, the agency stated. Forest Service biologists believe it is possible that in some cases the strains currently carried by bighorn sheep in these herds may be less virulent, or that these bighorn sheep have developed some level of immunity specific to those strains.
Domestic sheep grazing on the Shoshone reached its highest point in the early 1900s and has been on a steady decline since. From the 1960s to 1980s many sheep allotments were converted to cattle. Since then, all commercial sheep grazing permits on the SNF, except for one, have been removed.
Two active allotments on the southern end of the SNF comprise the current extent of domestic sheep grazing on the forest. Up to 1,150 ewe/lambs are grazed on the Pine-Willow Allotment, and are then moved to the adjacent Slate Creek Allotment. No domestic sheep grazing is authorized within core native bighorn sheep range on the Shoshone.
There are no active commercial domestic goat allotments on the SNF, and domestic goats are not used for vegetation management, but recreational goat packing is allowed on the Washakie Ranger District.
In 2011, domestic goat use on the Clarks Fork, Wapiti, Greybull and Wind River ranger districts was restricted. The closure was implemented to reduce the risk of disease transmission from pack goats to core native bighorn sheep herds. The pack goat closure order was issued again in June 2016 and will be in effect until Dec. 31, 2019, or until rescinded. Under this temporary closure, domestic goat use is only authorized on the Washakie Ranger District.
Under the newly released proposal, permit-only pack goat use would be allowed on portions of the Clarks Fork, Washakie and Wind River districts.
Pack goat use for backcountry trips into the Wind River Range occurred prior to implementation of the closure order, primarily into the Fitzpatrick Wilderness.