OWL CREEK MOUNTAINS -- Frank Robbins says he doesn’t mean to offend. He is, in his view, a victim of government harassment, a private property owner targeted for doing with his own land as he sees fit.
But the Thermopolis-area rancher has offended many over the years, including, at various points, conservation groups, government employees and even fellow ranchers.
A spat over his grazing leases with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management ultimately led to a court case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
His most recent decision, to run domestic sheep in the windswept highlands of the Owl Creek Mountains, could prove his most contentious yet.
State wildlife officials and conservation groups say the move poses a potentially lethal threat to one of the largest bighorn sheep herds in the lower 48.
Robbins, 59, dismisses these claims in a smooth Southern drawl, at times barely concealing his frustration. For him, the issue is one of survival for his family and ranch.
“They can pay me every year to not run sheep,” he said one recent morning as he navigated a white Ford SUV up a winding road on his sprawling ranch.
The spat underscores the difficulty of preserving two Western icons: a lifestyle and a species, each struggling in the mountains they once ruled.
And it highlights the precarious politics of the BLM, the agency charged with balancing the needs of wildlife and agriculture on much of the public lands in the West.
Robbins came to Wyoming from Alabama, by way of a ranch in Montana. He’s been in the cattle business for more than 40 years.
Ask him how he ended up with the High Island Ranch in 1994, and he’ll say he “got lost.”
"Sometimes there’s no good reason why you end up somewhere," he added.
He and his wife built a new home on his land in 2000, with large windows and vistas of the Owl Creek Mountains outside Thermopolis. He pieced together land until his ranch grew to about 75,000 acres. The original BLM leases about doubled the size.
Robbins’ current dispute is not with the BLM, but it stems from earlier disagreements over his federal grazing leases.
The BLM took them away in the mid-2000s, ruling that the Thermopolis rancher had violated the terms of his grazing deals with the government.
Robbins maintains that the decision forced him to turn to sheep, which require less acreage than cows.
The problem, say wildlife advocates, is that a large chunk of Robbins’ private land sits in the middle of prime bighorn sheep habitat, where commingling with domestic sheep could lead to the demise of the wild herd.
They say Robbins is trying to use that possibility to blackmail the BLM into returning his former leases. They point to an April 2012 letter written by the rancher to the BLM.
“Since you decided not to return the permit in whole we have decided to go forward with sheep,” Robbins wrote.
The Wyoming Wild Sheep Foundation obtained the correspondence through a Freedom of Information Act request, and it was given to the Star-Tribune.
“We have operated at 35% for years and will not wait on what is not going to happen,” Robbins' letter continued. “If and when a bighorn die-off occurs I want you to know that we feel we have done everything that we have been ask (sic) and been patient for years and you will have to answer for what happens.”
The BLM says it is working on the lengthy process to return those leases.
In the meantime, conservation groups say the BLM is ignoring the trespassing of Robbins' sheep on public land.
One BLM biologist was even suspended for insubordination in September after asking the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to help the BLM document the trespass, according to BLM documents shared with the Star-Tribune.
“We are unsatisfied with the responses we’ve heard from BLM management,” said Kevin Hurley, conservation director for the Wild Sheep Foundation. “It’s not staff; it’s the BLM management. Then they go ahead and punish their employee who was doing their job.”
Bighorn sheep once roamed Wyoming by the tens of thousands. They moved fluidly in herds back and forth between high mountain peaks and low valleys. Their curled horns make them a symbol of the rugged West.
With settlers came unregulated hunting, habitat fragmentation and domestic sheep. It’s the final one, domestic sheep, that Hurley now considers the biggest threat to West-wide bighorn restoration.
A series of scientific papers concludes that domestic sheep carry bacteria in their lungs that can prompt lethal cases of pneumonia among their wild brethren.
Bighorn die-offs linked to domestic sheep have been documented across the West, including in Colorado, Wyoming, Washington and Idaho. Studies of sheep in captivity have proved transmission.
“Will every bighorn that runs into a domestic get pneumonia?” Hurley said. “No, but it’s much more likely there will be a bighorn pneumonia problem or die-off in the event of contact.”
The science linking disease between domestic sheep and bighorns isn’t perfect, said Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association and a sheep rancher.
But, he added, “there is evidence under certain conditions, domestic sheep can transmit pneumonia or disease to bighorns. … There is some risk out on the open range. The risk varies from one place to another.”
The best solution, Hurley said, is separation, which is why nearly 15 years ago, those invested in wild sheep and domestic sheep formed a working group in Wyoming.
The differing interests spent four-and-a-half years reaching an agreement dividing Wyoming into three sections: bighorn sheep core native areas, non-emphasis areas for bighorn sheep and land up for negotiation.
Portions of Robbins’ High Island Ranch in the Owl Creeks are adjacent to or within core bighorn sheep habitat, Magagna said.
“The case could be made (that) some of that area, under the Wyoming plan, probably isn’t appropriate to run sheep on public land,” he said.
Robbins’ history with the BLM began 20 years ago, when he bought his ranch.
Unbeknownst to Robbins, BLM officials had arranged with the previous owner to establish an easement to cross Robbins’ land, and they failed to record the agreement. The battle that followed kept the two permanently intertwined.
BLM biologists found more than a dozen violations against Robbins including overgrazing on his own cattle leases and grazing on other people’s leases.
He said the BLM was harassing him, spying on him and trying to extort the easement out of him.
His lawsuit ultimately landed on the desk of the U.S. Supreme Court, where the justices sided with the government.
The BLM in Washington, D.C., worked out a deal with Robbins in 2003, forgiving him of all violations. But not long after, the BLM in Wyoming removed his leases, citing new violations.
When he reapplied for the leases, he spent years going back and forth with the BLM. So many, in fact, that he grew tired of waiting and added domestic sheep to his operation.
Robbins says he wasn’t blackmailing the government with his letter saying he intended to run domestic sheep.
“I kept telling them and everyone else, 'I've got to make a living here,'" Robbins said. "'I'm going to go to sheep if I cannot run enough cattle.'"
He doesn’t believe domestic sheep harm bighorn sheep. And he says he’s waited long enough.
Even if the BLM put a priority on Robbins’ leases, it could take five to seven years before all 18 allotments are returned to Hay Creek Land and Cattle Co., Robbins’ business, said Mike Phillips, assistant field manager of resources for the BLM.
In the meantime, the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, the Wild Sheep Foundation and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department are raising concerns over the presence of domestic sheep grazing in bighorn habitat.
The Francs Peak herd in central Wyoming has between 600 and 800 animals, making it part of the largest bighorn sheep herd in the lower 48, said Bart Kroger, a Game and Fish wildlife biologist.
Robbins’ private land sits within habitat, and he is also the only person in his area known to be grazing domestic sheep, Kroger said.
Photos taken by Game and Fish documenting domestic sheep on BLM parcels near Robbins’ land were given to the federal agency, according to records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
The BLM says the state’s evidence is not sufficient. To find someone guilty of trespass, the agency has to document the violation itself.
The BLM investigates each report of trespass by going to the ranch, Phillips said. Because BLM officials have to cross through private gates, they are required to ask the landowner for permission.
“We get there as soon as possible,” Phillips said, "as soon as the staff is available.”
Tim Stephens, a career biologist with the BLM, was suspended for seven days for insubordination after requesting that Kroger check the leases for possible trespass.
Kroger planned to fly over the Owl Creek Mountains on his way to count grizzly bears.
The BLM would not comment on Stephens or any other personnel issues, Phillips said.
“They have documents that he is trespassing, and they don’t want to do anything about it,” said Steve Kilpatrick, executive director of the Wyoming Wildlife Federation. “It’s very sad that this renowned bighorn sheep herd is victimized by a conflict between the federal government and a permitee. The bighorn sheep herd is being held hostage until the conflict is resolved.”
Robbins said his herders keep his sheep on his land and never intentionally graze public lands. Conservation groups are trying to make a private land issue into a public land one, he says.
“I’m not going to sit here and tell you that sheep or cattle never got on public lands. I’m not going to tell you that,” he said. “Things happen at times that are out of your control. ... There are no ranchers anywhere that guarantee anything about what their animals are going to do.”
The conservation groups say they can’t and won’t tell Robbins what to do with his private land, but they believe he is trespassing, further endangering wild sheep.
Kilpatrick, Magagna and Hurley all want the BLM to expedite the permitting process for Robbins’ high-country leases. They hope that if the BLM offers the leases to Robbins, he may switch back from sheep to cattle.
If years battling the BLM taught Robbins anything, it’s how to be better in court, he said.
Looking out his car window at distant peaks on his land, he said he would continue to fight anyone who challenges him.
“I’m going to find out if I’ve got the power to shut them down, get them off my back. I’m going to do some things, and I’m going to find out just how serious they are about the harassment,” he said, referring to Game and Fish and conservation groups.
He’s in the sheep business, he said. And he doesn’t plan to stop.
Kilpatrick doesn’t want lawsuits. He wants the BLM to acknowledge any trespass on its land and offer Robbins back his leases quickly.
“We have a Wyoming way and culture, and we sit down and communicate. We are not interested in immediately litigating,” he said. “We want to discuss this and find out if there are any options to the existing situation.”
It all comes down to economics, Robbins said. Having his leases back might help. They would at least allow him to run more cows. Until then, he’ll keep running his ranch as he sees fit.
“If the environmentalists and Game and Fish and whoever else in the world want to round up a pile of money and bring it to me and say, ‘I’ll pay you all this money to not run sheep up there,’ … I’ll consider that,” he said.