Bighorn sheep reintroduction plan rejected 

The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission has voted to reject a plan to reintroduce bighorn sheep to historic range in the Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park area in western Montana after neighboring landowners voiced opposition.

The vote on Thursday is the first defeat for Montana's Bighorn Sheep Conservation Strategy adopted in 2010. The state has a goal of establishing 10 new herds.

The strategy calls for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to coordinate with local landowners who might have bighorn sheep enter their property. But landowners at the meeting objected to transplanting bighorns, citing concerns about broken fences and competition for forage.

"I literally never heard of the proposal until Dec. 16 and found my land was listed as a passageway for sheep to move from one side of the highway to the other," said Terry Murphy, a Republican state senator and landowner near Cardwell. "The same kind of proposal came up 15 years ago. We opposed it and it wasn't done. We are there using the land and trying to make a living on it, not making it a tourist attraction. There is absolute opposition to it on my part."

State officials hoped to transplant bighorns to the area with the potential local economic benefit of attracting wildlife watchers and hunters. The area was picked because it has no large operations involving domestic sheep, which can transmit diseases to bighorns.

Still, opposition from area landowners was strong.

"We did not have anywhere near the majority of landowners in favor of them," said Pat Flowers of the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

As a result, commissioners voted against transplanting bighorns into the area.

"The (FWP) department is working hard to live up to this plan, which was the consensus of a lot of groups," said Commissioner Dan Vermillion. "But the department, in this case has — no question — there were some things they could have done better with public outreach. But I think the department did a good job making sure the plan was known to a broad swath of the community."

Vermillion noted each attempt in the last six years to reintroduce sheep has failed. He said ranchers fear bighorns will interfere with operations, or that hunters or wildlife watchers won't respect private property.

"If the sheep plan doesn't allow us to translocate sheep, then that's a problem," Vermillion said.

The Montana Wool Growers Association supported the transplant at a meeting last month. Spokesman John Helle said the easiest places to transplant sheep are already occupied.

"It's a challenge finding any location where it provides suitable habitat for sheep and where we can get the agreement of any affected landowners," said Flowers. "It doesn't mean we're not going to stop looking or stop trying."

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