Bighorn sheep, wolves topics of discussion for woolgrowers

RBC | Colorado lamb is considered the “gold standard” in American lamb, according to Rio Blanco County Woolgrowers Association vice-president Tony Theos at the annual RBC Woolgrowers meeting March 2, and the price of wool continues to climb. But most of the discussion in the meeting revolved around other species: bighorn sheep, wolves, bears and wild horses.

Every federally-funded agency that reported to the association said their budgets have been cut, from Colorado Parks and Wildlife to the U.S. Forest Service to the Bureau of Land Management. Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the USDA Fish and Wildlife Service focus on predation problems, the U.S. Forest Service and BLM deal with grazing permits.

“Healthy rangelands is a common goal,” said BLM director Kent Walter. 

Colorado Wool Growers Association Executive Director Bonnie Brown said the “biggest ticket” item she’s working on revolves around bighorn sheep and grazing allotments. There are concerns that Colorado’s bighorn sheep are potentially at risk for a communicable disease transmitted by domestic sheep if they come into contact. In those areas, determined by computer modeling, allotments could be restricted.

According to USFS Wildlife Biologist Mary Gillespie, “We feel like we’re doing the best we can for separation. We have really extensive monitoring here. We’re 25 air miles from closest mapped herd.”

Gillespie said the overall summer range for bighorns is mapped across the Flat Tops. 

“Some other forests haven’t taken a collaborative approach, so this is appreciated,” Brown said.

The push for reintroducing wolves to western Colorado was a major topic again.

“I don’t think you’re going to see a lack of pushing for this to happen,” said Justin Moreno from USDA Wildlife Services.  “Western Colorado is the last link from the Arctic to the southern tip of Mexico. It has as much biomass as Yellowstone did before reintroduction. If they establish here, there is no reintroduction with management authority.”

Moreno urged ag producers to “get on board” with so-called “10J” designation.

“It’s not a matter of if (wolves return to Colorado), it’s when. It’s just a matter of time whether they’re established as a pair or a pack, either naturally or through designation. Going through the process of getting a 10J designation could take 3-4 years,” Moreno said.

The species of wolf being reintroduced to the North American landscape are not indigenous to the region, they’re Canadian wolves, which are significantly larger than the wolves which originally inhabited Colorado.

In other business, the association will continue to sell lamb kabobs at the fair and at the Meeker Classic as fundraisers for its scholarship program, and is considering a way to add some goat meat, since the organization represents both goats and sheep.