Bill Could Break Deadlock On Returning Bighorns To Prime Wyoming Habitat

A bill before the Wyoming Senate could break a deadlock over whether bighorn sheep should return to prime habitat in Central Wyoming.

Mark Heinz

February 15, 20243 min read

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Hopes are being hung on a bill before the Wyoming Legislature that it could finally break a lingering deadlock over whether bighorn sheep will return to some prime state habitat.

“It’s been a serious, slow negotiation” regarding the possible return of wild sheep to Sweetwater Rocks — a remote, rugged area in central Wyoming, Rep. Cyrus Western, R-Big Horn, told Cowboy State Daily.

He and others hope that Senate File 118 will clear the way for reintroduction of bighorn sheep to move forward, while also laying to rest worries ranchers have about the bighorns being used as leverage to kick their livestock off federal land.

The aim of the bill is simple, Western said. If bighorns are reintroduced, but get too close to domestic ship in any particular area, then it will be up to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to get the bighorns out of there.

“If there’s an intermingling between bighorn sheep and domestic sheep, and they (ranchers) could stand to lose their grazing allotments, then Game and Fish will remove the bighorns,” Western said.

Paradise For Bighorns

The Sweetwater Rocks area holds some of the best habitat on Earth for Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. Early explorers recalled seeing huge numbers of bighorns there, which they mistakenly called “Mountain Ibex.”

However, by the early 20th century, the bighorns were gone from there, killed off by overhunting and disease. There’s been talk of bringing them back since the 1940s, and a 2021 reintroduction plan nearly went through.

The proposed Sweetwater Rocks bighorn reintroduction area encompasses roughly 70,000 acres, including significant amounts of Bureau of Land Management parcels.

Much of the best wild sheep habitat is also on the Split Rock Ranch, and ranch manager Billy Burton previously told Cowboy State Daily that he supports the reintroduction.

Disease And Regulation Worries

However, other ranchers worry that reintroduced bighorns could be used as leverage against them.

Bighorn sheep are susceptible to deadly pneumonia outbreaks, and the disease is sometimes transmitted to them from domestic sheep flocks.

So ranchers are worried that if bighorns returned, federal authorities might use concerns over pneumonia transmission as an excuse to kick domestic sheep herds off BLM grazing allotments.

There aren’t any domestic sheep in the immediate area where bighorn sheep might be reintroduced, but there is concern that the bighorns could wander far and wide, and eventually encounter domestic flocks.

SF 118 would give Game and Fish the authority and duty to capture and remove bighorns that get too close to domestic sheep. That would have to happen “as soon as practicable but not later than six months after” it’s determined that intermingling between wild and domestic sheep poses a risk, according to the bill’s text.

The Compromise Everybody’s Been Waiting For?

Western said the possibility of sheep returning to Sweetwater Rocks is also big news for hunters. An established herd there could mean more bighorn sheep hunting tags, which are rare and extremely hard for hunters to draw.

He added that SF 118 could provide the compromise that parties on all sides have been waiting for.

“The Sheep herders have had their input, Game and Fish has had their input,” as well as hunters, wild sheep conservationists and others, “ he said.

Mark Heinz can be reached at

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Mark Heinz

Outdoors Reporter