Wyoming Foundation Aims to Bring Wild Sheep Back to the Granite Mountains
This is an ongoing effort that was first proposed to the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission in 2021.
The foundation reasons that bighorn sheep historically roamed the Sweetwater Rocks and were documented as early as 1812 by fur trader Robert Stuart and later by trapper Osborne Russell and explorer John C. Fremont; but in the early 20th century their populations began to diminish due to disease from domestic sheep and overhunting.
Further, the foundation posits that increasing the populations of wild sheep in Wyoming will add additional wildlife viewing and hunting opportunities.
The process of returning wild sheep back to the Bighorns is complex and has been discussed since the Forties.
For landowners, the question of contact between domestic and wild sheep and grazing rights raise concerns.
"The good news is, in the area that is being proposed for bighorn sheep, there are no active allotments [for domestic sheep]," says Katie Cheesbrough, the Executive Director with the Wyoming Wild Sheep Foundation. There are allotments that could be used for domestic sheep, but they aren't currently and are unlikely to be used by domestic sheep in the future.
In 2021 the University of Wyoming did a study assessing the risk of contact between domestic and wild sheep in the area and it is very low, but not impossible. The study also did a habitat analysis that predicts Sweetwater Rocks to be an ideal, high-quality habitat for sheep due to available forage and escape terrain.
Read the study here.
The Sweetwater Rocks consist of high-desert habitat dominated by rocky outcrops and sagebrush grasslands. Land features within the 73,101-acre boundary include Devil’s Gate, Split Rock, Lankin Dome, Savage Peak, and Martin’s Cove.
"It is important for the viability of the species in Wyoming to have populations of wild sheep across our landscape,” said Cheesbrough.
“Isolated herds in high-quality habitat, like the Sweetwater Rocks are important so that if disease is impacting one herd, we still have a stronghold of another herd that is unaffected and healthy.”
The current proposal calls for between 25 to 50 Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, sourced from the neighboring Ferris-Seminoe herd,that would be GPS-tracked and supplemented with additional transplants when necessary.
Advocates pushed for the initial drop to take place in early 2023. However, despite over a year of landowner engagement and public commentary, the plan has faced an uphill battle against concerned agricultural producers that want legally defensible assurances that their ranching operations will not be affected.
Read the whole initiative here.
The Wyoming Wild Sheep Foundation just put up a video on YouTube that goes into detail explaining their goals. See below.
Ultimately, it will be up the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, the Wyoming Board of Agriculture and Wyoming Livestock Board to determine the fate of wild sheep in the Sweetwater Rocks.
Bighorn Sheep in Wyoming
Gallery Credit: Kolby Fedore, TSM