Pitkin County Open Space and Trails has proposed contributing $32,000 toward elimination of a domestic sheep grazing allotment in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area to benefit the native bighorn sheep herd.
County commissioners and the Open Space and Trails Board will consider the expenditure on Sept. 10.
The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) has negotiated a financial agreement with rancher Joe Sperry of Delta, Colo. to retire the grazing allotment with the goal of eliminating contact between bighorns and Sperry’s domestic sheep herd.
“Domestic sheep carry a number of respiratory pathogens that can, and often do, decimate entire herds of bighorn sheep,” said Bob McCready, a Wildlife Conflict Resolution Program manager with the NWF. The relocation of Sperry’s herd significantly reduces the risk of contact between domestic sheep and the bighorns, and therefore dramatically reduces the risk of pathogen transmission to the bighorn herd across the Elk Range, according to McCready.
As part of the deal, Sperry is relinquishing his grazing rights on 33,646 acres high in the Elk Mountains near Marble. Using the funding from the agreement with the NWF, he has already acquired a permit for other grazing lands and has relocated his domestic flock of about 1,000 ewes and lambs to the new allotment.
The Upper Crystal River grazing allotment had been used by the Sperry family for decades, according to McCready. Sheep were grazed there for roughly two months each summer, starting in early July. The allotment, administered by the U.S. Forest Service, is also home to one of the highest priority herds of bighorn sheep (it’s known as the Snowmass herd) in Colorado. The rugged mountain range provides ideal habitat for bighorns, according to McCready.
The NWF’s Wildlife Conflict Resolution Program focuses on retiring livestock grazing allotments where chronic conflicts with wildlife exist. Ranchers voluntarily waive their allotments in exchange for a market-based price. In this instance, the U.S. Forest Service, which holds the allotment, will write a letter committing that the allotment will remain vacant long into the future.
The Upper Crystal allotment was a good one, according to Sperry. His sheep did well there and there was little predation, but there were a few conflicts with the growing number of people recreating there, and there was an alternative allotment available off McClure Pass.
“It was an opportunity that came up for me – it was good for the bighorn sheep and it was going to work for me,” he said.
With $32,000 from Pitkin County, an equal amount already committed from Two Shoes Ranch and support from the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society, the NWF is looking to other individuals and conservation organizations for additional funding. Interested contributors are welcome to contact McCready and go to nwf.org/wcr to learn more about the work.
The Wildlife Conflict Resolution Program has been retiring grazing allotments for 20 years in the Northern Rockies – 1.4 million acres to date – but only expanded into Colorado in late 2017, according to McCready.
The Upper Crystal deal is the one of the first significant retirements of a grazing allotment in the state, along with a sheep allotment in southern Colorado and a cattle allotment in the Sarvis Creek Wilderness near Steamboat Springs that helped in the recovery of critical riparian habitat and native fish. The upper Crystal River allotment is a very high-profile one, given its location, and one McCready hopes will set the stage for successful agreements elsewhere in Colorado to aid in the recovery of bighorn sheep. The iconic ungulate is Colorado’s State Animal.
“Pitkin County’s leadership, along with the other supporters of the project, will have an impact that spans far beyond protecting the Snowmass bighorn herd as we see more and more domestic sheep grazing allotment retirements to protect wild sheep over the next few years,” McCready said.
Pitkin County Open Space and Trails identified bighorn resiliency as a goal in the Carbondale to Crested Butte Trail Plan, adopted by county commissioners in December 2018. The plan calls for working with partners to restore the struggling herd to health and restore the population to healthy numbers. The bighorn herd is often seen grazing at Filoha Meadows Nature Preserve, a county open space property in the upper Crystal Valley, in the winter months.
“We asked wildlife experts what we could do that would be most beneficial for the bighorn herd up the Crystal,” said Gary Tennenbaum, director of Open Space and Trails. “They advised us to focus on eliminating the herd’s interaction with domestic sheep. The National Wildlife Federation has been instrumental in making this happen, but I also give a lot of the credit to Mr. Sperry for agreeing to give up a long-held allotment for the benefit of native bighorns.”
“I think Joe Sperry is the hero here,” McCready agreed. “These agreements are completely voluntary, but are still very difficult decisions for the livestock producer and Joe has been a fantastic partner in every step of the process.”
Gary Tennenbaum, director of Pitkin County Open Space and Trails
firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-920-5355
Bob McCready, National Wildlife Federation, Wildlife Conflict Resolution Program
Southern Rockies and Great Basin program manager
Office: 720-340-1209 / Cell: 206-419-9442
Crystal River Allotment Agreement and NWF Fact Sheet