Central Wyoming Bighorn Reintroduction All But Certain, Ranchers Still Not Happy

A bill that could pave the way for bighorn sheep to return to Wyoming’s remote Sweetwater Rocks area passed the Legislature, but some are worried the feds or anti-grazing advocates could use bighorns as leverage to push ranchers out.

Mark Heinz

March 11, 20245 min read

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(Getty Images)

Despite some pushback during the recently completed legislative session, a bill paving the way to return bighorn sheep to central Wyoming’s Sweetwater Rocks area passed.

Senate File 118 is likely to be signed by Gov. Mark Gordon, said one of its sponsors, Rep. Cyrus Western, R-Big Horn.

The governor “certainly hasn’t given any indication that he has any misgivings about it,” Western told Cowboy State Daily on Monday.

Meanwhile, bills having to do with whitetail and mule deer management, and compensating ranchers for forage consumed by elk failed to pass.

Criticism Of Bighorn Sheep Bill

The Wyoming Farm Bureau criticized SF 118 as it was going through the legislature, arguing that it could have unintended consequences for ranchers with grazing leases on Bureau of Land Management allotments.

There’s worry that the federal government or anti-grazing advocates could use bighorns as leverage to push ranchers out.

The Farm Bureau still opposes reintroducing bighorns in the Sweetwater Rocks area without assurances at the federal level, spokesman Brett Moline told Cowboy State Daily on Monday.

“We can pound our chest all we want at the state level, but once that impact to grazing leases is there, it will be there, regardless of whether the bighorn sheep are still there,” he said.

Ideal Habitat

Some of the best bighorn sheep habitat in the Sweetwater Rocks area is on the Split Rock Ranch.

Ranch manager Billy Burton told Cowboy State Daily that he and others would like to see bighorn sheep reintroduced there. The Split Rock Ranch and the neighboring Pathfinder Ranch contain some of the best bighorn sheep habitat in the West, Burton said.

Bighorns once thrived there. By the early 20th century, the bighorn sheep were gone from Sweetwater Rocks because of overhunting and disease, according to the Wyoming Wild Sheep Foundation.

There has been talk of reintroducing bighorns there for decades, patterning it off other successful reintroductions around Wyoming.

“I think this bill is just the latest chapter in a plan that has been in the works for 20 years,” Western said. “The bighorn ram is such an incredibly iconic species.”

An ‘Olive Branch’ To Ranchers

However, other ranchers in the Sweetwater Rocks area aren’t keen on the idea. Rancher Troy Corbett said the he and many of his neighbors depend upon leases to graze domestic sheep and cattle on BLM ground, and worry about losing those grazing leases.

Bighorn sheep can be vulnerable to disease transmitted from domestic sheep. And that has led to grazing leases being shut down in other states.

To prevent that in Wyoming, the state wrote a bighorn-domestic sheep working plan in 2004, and codified in into state statute in 2015.

SF 118 builds off that. It would require the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to remove bighorn sheep from the area if they got too close to domestic herds, or if there was any other indication that grazing leases could be affected.

Western said the bill “extends an olive branch” to ranchers concerned about the effects of bighorn sheep.

The bill resulted from years of work between various stakeholders, including bighorn sheep conservationists, hunters, ranchers and Game and Fish officials, he said.

“Those are the kinds of solutions I want, that include all parties involved,” Western said. “At the end of the day it (BLM property) is all of our land. The sportsmen, the woolgrowers, everybody.”

‘We Need A Federal Solution’

Moline said that from the Farm Bureau’s perspective, SF 118 still can’t prevent the BLM or anti-grazing groups from acting outside of the state’s control.

During legislative committee discussion on the bill, an amendment was suggested that bighorn sheep not be reintroduced into the Sweetwater Rocks area until assurances had been made on the federal level that grazing leases would not be affected. That amendment was rejected.

However, that’s still a good idea, Moline said. Wyoming’s U.S. congressional delegation could hammer out a policy by which the grazing leases could be protected at the federal level.

“We need a federal solution, that there will be no harm done to grazing before they put the bighorn sheep in,” he said. “We want those assurances that grazing won’t be harmed. Period. Exclamation mark.”

Other Bills Fail

Two other major wildlife policy bills failed.

Senate File 111 would have separated the management of mule deer and whitetail deer in Wyoming. That would have included separate hunting tags for each species. It passed the Wyoming Senate, but failed on its third reading before the House.

House Bill 60 would have offered additional compensation to ranchers for forage that elk eat, leaving less for their livestock. It passed the House, but failed to pass the committee of the whole before the Senate.

Mark Heinz can be reached at mark@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Mark Heinz

Outdoors Reporter