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News / Nation & World

Agreements prevent ranchers’ herds from infecting wildlife

By Elise Schmelzer, The Denver Post
Published: November 11, 2023, 5:36am

DENVER — Ernie Etchart’s family has raised sheep in the San Juan mountains for more than 70 years, taking a herd of thousands every summer to the green, open meadows of the high country to graze.

But the Etcharts will stop using their permits to graze on more than 101,000 acres of public land — a swath about the size of the city of Denver — in a deal with a nonprofit that’s aimed at protecting bighorn sheep from the deadly diseases that can be passed from their domestic relatives.

“It’s a difficult decision,” Etchart said. “You’ve been doing business in this area for many years. Every summer, we had the move back up and back down from the high country. Over time, things have changed.”

The deal between the Etchart family and the National Wildlife Federation is intended to keep bighorn sheep from interacting with domestic sheep, which can pass on deadly pneumonia. The disease not only wipes out large percentages of a herd but can also be passed on to ewes born later into the herd.

Because those ewes lack immunity, the vast majority die within a month of their birth, said Bob McCready, the wildlife conflict-resolution program manager with the National Wildlife Federation.

“It’s such a pernicious pathogen because it stays in that herd for many, many years — often decades,” he said.

The National Wildlife Federation started brokering similar grazing agreements about two decades ago as a solution to wildlife conflict. The deals have fairly compensated ranchers and avoided years of litigation.

Combined, the grazing permits that no longer are being used add up to 1.7 million acres — a land mass approximately the size of Delaware.

The deal announced Wednesday with the Etcharts, with undisclosed financial terms, is the largest the nonprofit has ever brokered in Colorado in terms of land area. An estimated 400 bighorn sheep live in and near the allotments being retired by the Etcharts.

It’s a win-win solution, McCready said.

“This is about finding common ground to solve a wildlife-conservation problem,” he said.

Bighorn sheep were on the brink of extinction in Colorado a century ago because of unregulated hunting and disease from domestic livestock. Colorado Parks and Wildlife began transplanting bighorns to Colorado in the 1940s, and the state’s population has rebounded to approximately 7,000. Diseases from domestic livestock are the biggest hindrance to the rebound of the species in the state, Colorado Parks and Wildlife says.

The state’s current bighorn population is about 10 percent of its historical size, according to the National Wildlife Federation.

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