Interview of Ken Cole ― Resistance Radio

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(Sound of bighorn sheep butting heads)

Hi, I’m Derrick Jensen and this is Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network. My guest today is Ken Cole. Ken is the new Executive Director for Buffalo Field Campaign. Previously, he served as NEPA Coordinator and later as Idaho Director for Western Watersheds Project where his work focused on the impacts to wildlife and their habitat from public lands livestock grazing. He has a background in fisheries management and has worked to protect wildlife and wild lands since 2001. He lives in Boise, Idaho. Today we talk about bighorn sheep.

So first, thank you for your work, and second, thank you for being on the program.

I guess the first question is can you tell us who bighorn sheep are? Describe them – are they tiny little sheep, big sheep? And where they live – let’s start with that. What they do in their natural communities, what a lot of people call “ecosystems.”

KC: Sure. Well, bighorn sheep are related to domestic sheep, but they’re about the size of a deer. They generally live in the western states, from North Dakota down to Baja, Mexico. They generally tend to like areas that have steep, rocky outcroppings that they use to escape from predators. They of course need nearby water and generally prefer areas with an open landscape, not heavily forested.

There used to be about one and a half to two million bighorn sheep in North America, and starting at about the 1800’s and early 1900’s, they really took a sharp decline, mostly from hunting and habitat loss, and competition for forage from introduced livestock; cattle and sheep. But the biggest impact has been from domestic sheep disease transmission, from domestic sheep. Bighorn and domestic sheep are closely related, like I said. And domestic sheep are carriers of a lot of diseases that are brought over from Europe. And similar to what happened when Europeans came to North America; they brought a lot of diseases that infected the Native American people, and the Native American people were new to those diseases, so they didn’t have any immunity. It’s the same kind of thing that’s happening with bighorn sheep.

Unfortunately, over time there has not been any kind of immunity built up in bighorn sheep populations, so every time there’s a contact with domestic sheep there is a very big die off of bighorn sheep herds, mainly due to pneumonia that comes as a result of these diseases. So as far as how much of the historic numbers remain; we’ve got about ten percent of what there used to be; ten percent of the one and a half to two million sheep. And they occupy less than 30% of their historic distribution.

And another problem is that a lot of these populations are small and isolated. So there’s not good connectivity between the different herds and not a lot of genetic exchange? So I think that that covers a lot of the background of bighorn sheep.

DJ: I really want to hear more about the troubles they face, but I want to go back for a second, because I don’t really know. So who – when they were healthy, who were some of their main predators? Wolves I guess?

KC: Well, I guess – currently wolves are not a big predator for bighorn sheep, because bighorn sheep can generally escape wolves in their steep terrain. I’ve watched wolves surrounding bighorn sheep in Yellowstone National Park and the bighorn sheep just stand there looking at them, because they’re up on the rocks, and the wolves can’t get to them.

The biggest predator of bighorn sheep is probably mountain lions, cougars. Same thing. Mountain lions are generally ambush predators and will hide out and wait for a bighorn sheep to come by, or they’ll sometimes stalk them and pounce on them when they’re not aware the cougar’s around.

DJ: Another sort of little background thing is – this is another question I don’t know the answer to either. So we know that buffalo create – one of the many things they do is create wallows that are great habitat for others. In a healthy functioning natural community, what are some of the things that the bighorn sheep do? I mean, how do they help their communities? Is that something we know?

KC: It’s not something I really know. I’ve not read a lot about that part of their ecology. They generally tend to live in areas where, you know, sometimes in very high elevation areas. Sometimes in desert areas in Nevada. And there are different strains of bighorn sheep. There’s the California bighorn sheep, Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. Desert bighorn sheep. There are also Dall sheep, up in Alaska and Canada.

Probably their biggest impact, contribution to the ecosystem is food and nutrient recycling for predators and vegetation, etc.

DJ: Which I think is probably true for most of us, ultimately.

KC: Yeah.

DJ: So one more question, which is, if people have heard of bighorn sheep at all, the thing they probably have heard of is the whole thing with the butting heads. Do you want to talk about that for a second?

KC: Yeah. The males generally – my experience watching them is generally in the early winter. The males will compete over breeding females, and they’ll rear up and run towards each other and bash their heads together and you can hear this sound from a long ways away. It sounds like a gunshot sometimes. And they’ll repeatedly do this until one of them finally gives up and walks away. Or falls off a cliff, sometimes. It’s a pretty spectacular thing to watch.

DJ: They must have extraordinary shoulders and necks and skulls.

KC: Yeah, they have skulls that are pretty strong and have thick bone right between the horns that kind of protects their brains. I’m not familiar exactly with what the adaptations are to make them so specialized in ramming their heads together. But of course that’s why they call the males “rams,” as well.

DJ: And that’s something that goes across a lot of species, too. I remember one time I was at an organic farm and they were taking me to the cow field and the horse field and the pig field, and they took me to the sheep field too, and the guy who was taking me on the tour kept having to grab this male because this one male kept wanting to ram me.

KC: (laughing) I’ve experienced that with goats, domestic goats.

DJ: So let’s go back to; the population’s about one tenth of what it was, and where is this population now? You said at one point it went to North Dakota. It’s scattered now, and you said it’s on 30% of the original range. So where are they primarily now? Are they in primarily wilderness area at this point?

KC: Not necessarily. It’s primarily in areas where there aren’t any domestic sheep, because that is the biggest impact for these herds. They do like wilderness areas, but it’s not necessarily wilderness. I’ve seen them next to the highway in Big Sky, Montana. I’ve seen them licking salt off of the roads in the wintertime. They’re not generally afraid of people. One of the things I love about bighorn sheep is I’ve been able to get a lot of really great pictures of them, because they don’t generally run away from people.

But as far as the distribution, they occupy a lot of their historic range as far as the states that they live in. They’re in almost all of the western states. I think they’ve probably disappeared from areas of Texas. I’m not aware of any in Texas anymore. But it was generally in the western states where there’s rougher terrain for them to use as escape habitat. The biggest problem is that they don’t have the contiguous habitat that they used to. So if you know anything about Nevada, it’s a series of north-south oriented mountain ranges, separated by big valleys, that is not generally very good bighorn sheep habitat. So these populations, especially if they’ve had contact with domestic sheep, become small and isolated from other populations.

Now in Idaho, we have the Frank Church Wilderness Area, and large contiguous areas of habitat, and they’re able to move very long distances through that habitat and have good connectivity with each of the herds. But still, that puts them at risk of coming into contact with domestic sheep.

Washington has some. Oregon, California. Arizona, New Mexico. Colorado has quite a few. Wyoming. Montana. Those western states with mountainous areas.

DJ: So you’ve talked a fair amount about domesticated sheep. And I think when a lot of people think about livestock, they may know a little bit about cattle grazing in the West. Anybody who has ever been out in national forests, or on BLM land has probably seen cattle. But is there a lot of sheep ranching, and is there, can you talk about – people may not know that we’re not talking about somebody’s backyard sheep, necessarily, but instead that much of this is on public lands as well. They may not know about that.

KC: To talk about one point you just made, backyard sheep are a problem for bighorn sheep. There have been backyard sheep in Gardiner, Montana, next to Yellowstone National Park, and there’s been a die off there recently. There have been a lot of die offs associated with hobby herds on private lands in Montana and Idaho and several other places as well. But domestic sheep grazing on public lands, while it’s not as ubiquitous as cattle grazing, is fairly widespread. In other words, they herd sheep through large expanses of landscape. They move them in herds. They hire, oftentimes, immigrant workers to herd sheep across public lands from lower elevation areas in the spring, into higher elevations, generally closer to bighorn sheep, in the summer and fall.

So I’d say it’s not as – there aren’t as many domestic sheep on the landscape as there once were. I think that’s partly to do with wool markets and sheep markets. They just generally are not as popular as they once were. One of the reasons is the military doesn’t use wool so much any more, as they did in World War II for example. So that is one of the reasons for decline of domestic sheep grazing. But there’s still enough of it around that when I’ve looked where bighorn sheep are and where domestic sheep are being grazed, there are problems everywhere. There’s a high risk of contact between the two in the large areas where bighorn sheep are and where they used to be. They’re extirpated from some areas as well, and it’s primarily because there is domestic sheep grazing taking place on these areas.

DJ: Okay, you’ve mentioned pneumonia. Is that the primary disease we’re concerned about? And the second question is; how is that, or whatever other diseases they may get, transmitted? Is it through feces or nose-to-nose contact? Through breathing the same air?

KC: Well, Pasteurella and Mannheimia haemolytica and Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae are the three primary pathogens. The first two are bacterial diseases, and the mycoplasma is a virus. Those are the three primary diseases that cause the pneumonia in bighorn sheep. And those generally are transmitted when bighorn sheep come in direct contact, nose-to-nose contact with domestic sheep. There have been some studies that show that in a lab situation that show that some of these pathogens can be transmitted through the air, but only under very special circumstances with high humidity. It seems unlikely that that would be the way it’s transmitted in the landscape.

They also have some external parasites, I can’t think of their names off the top of my head. And there are some strange viruses related to herpes that have had some pretty bad impacts on bighorn sheep.

DJ: You say it’s nose-to-nose contact sometimes. So when they’re grazing in the same areas, or on the same general terrain, do the flocks intermingle? How does this happen?

KC: Since they’re so closely related, there’s an attraction between the two species. So you get a ram that is doing a foray from the general core herd area, looking for bighorn sheep to mate with, and he’ll come across some domestic sheep and say “Oh, I’m going to check you out.” And he’ll go to intermingle with the domestic sheep, and they get right up to each other and nose-to-nose contact occurs. And there might be a little bit of that with domestic sheep seeking out bighorn sheep, but I think it’s mostly the other way around.

DJ: So if they’re going to go on a foray, what sort of a buffer between bighorn sheep and domesticated sheep would be considered reasonable?

KC: There’s been a lot of discussion about that. The wildlife agencies have come out with recommendations saying there needs to be a nine mile separation between domestic and bighorn sheep herds. But that can vary, based on the landscape. If there’s good habitat that they like to use, that’s contiguous, like in Idaho, we could have an interaction out on the edge of the wilderness that could impact bighorn sheep and they could carry it back to the rest of the herd many miles away. Because some of the foray distances are very long, like 40 miles. So that is something, to really ensure that there is no contact or very low risk, nine miles is a minimum, but I think a much better buffer would be 20-40 miles. That would pretty much eliminate a lot of the domestic sheep grazing across the landscape, too.

DJ: So let’s back up one more time. So I am a ram who has wandered down and went nose-to-nose with some domesticated sheep. I picked up a bug and then I wander back to my family herd. Am I correct so far?

KC: Mmm-hmm.

DJ: So we all say hello to each other and touch nose-to-nose, and everything else. And then what can we expect? What is the mortality rate, often, among the herds who get infected? And how long is it going to take for other members of the herd to die?

KC: It can happen pretty quickly. Generally when there’s a disease outbreak you can lose 90% of the herd. Sometimes, if the herd is small, you can lose all of them. It happens a lot in the fall, and winter. A lot of time it goes unnoticed until somebody starts seeing dead sheep everywhere. I think that there have been a few places where they have actually documented the interaction with domestic and bighorn sheep, and if they can’t, the only method of really stopping this is to actually try to kill the bighorn sheep that have become infected, to try to prevent them from infecting the rest of the herd. Some of the studies showed that it could be a week, two weeks, a month, that they could transmit disease to large numbers of the herd. And then they die pretty quickly once they contract the diseases.

DJ: This seems very scary to me, in that you can have a herd who’s perfectly healthy and the habitat is fine, and everybody’s going along fine. And then all of a sudden, literally two months later, 90% of the herd could be dead.

KC: Yeah. And often the reaction of the wildlife agencies for any given state, what they’ll do is they’ll go and finish off the rest of the herd. They view it as wanting to have a clean slate so they can restore bighorn sheep to that area in the future, and not have to worry about the sheep that are remaining spreading disease to any new introduced bighorn sheep.

DJ: Can the ones who survive then become carriers themselves?

KC: Yes, and that’s where the next problem comes in, is that when you have bighorn populations that are fairly large, and you have these die offs with a lot of remaining sheep, they are carriers and they transmit the disease to the newborns. So there can be a lot of newborn bighorn sheep, like in Hell’s Canyon I’ve seen a lot of young bighorn sheep that end up dead later in that summer because they have no immunity to the pathogens that are in their parents.

DJ: I’m not in any way an immunologist. But I do know how many creatures – I know how antibacterial resistance breeds itself, and I know how there are some insects who can become immune to certain pesticides. I understand how natural selection can work that way. How is it that there has not been – is it because they breed slowly or something? Why has there not been some immunity developed?

KC: I really don’t know. I know that the impacts linger for a decade or more. In Hell’s Canyon on the Oregon-Idaho border, since the last contact with domestic sheep they’ve really struggled in trying to increase populations of bighorn sheep. In smaller populations, where it kills 90% of the sheep, they may never get enough survivors of the young to carry on the lineage, and they may just become extirpated in those smaller areas.

DJ: So before we start talking about solutions, let’s go back to how bighorn sheep are sort of naturally. What is their natural rate of reproduction or recruitment? And how quickly – let’s say they are extirpated from a region. And let’s pretend that the sheep are all gone. How quickly can they reinhabit? So the two questions are: how quickly can their populations come back if we get rid of the disease? And second: how quickly do they reinhabit areas?

DJ: I’m not really up-to-date on their reproductive rate. Generally the ewes have one, maybe two lambs each year? So I would think that, depending on predation, that they would be able to reestablish a population over a decade or so. One of the things that they have found when they artificially introduced populations is that the animals are not very familiar with their surroundings. They have a hard time finding water supplies and they’re very susceptible to predation during that initial period of time. I know there’s a big controversy down in Arizona, I believe it is, where they’ve tried to reestablish a herd and they’re killing a lot of mountain lions to make it so that herd can stand a better chance of becoming reestablished with larger numbers of bighorn sheep.

DJ: Isn’t that just typical, so often, of so-called wildlife management? You have domesticated sheep on there, which kill off the bighorn herds, and then the solution to this, supposedly, is to then kill go mountain lions. I would just say it’s nuts except that of course, having worked environmentally, and been an activist against this stuff for almost 30 years, that this is not unusual.

Oh, I just gotta mention this. One of the things I did a long time ago in Idaho and in eastern Washington is file timber sale appeals, trying to stop the timber sale cuts. And there was one timber sale that came across, one action that came across, that we were going to oppose, which was that they had killed and taken out too many trees, so there weren’t enough dead trees for habitat, for creatures who rely on dead trees, which is a lot of them. So what they were going to do was to go into a new forest, and inject heart-rot fungus into live trees, to make more dead standing trees, because they’d already killed and cut all the other trees. And this is just completely nuts, and I’m sure you could tell me 50 stories that are just the same.

KC: Oh yeah. The biggest challenge is just getting the domestic sheep off of grazing allotment.

DJ: So before we talk about getting them off, can you talk for just a second about the whole welfare ranching thing? The price they pay, etc. I know that the emphasis here is ecology, but this just burns my grits too.

KC: Currently the federal grazing right for one cow and one calf, or five ewes and their lambs, is $1.89 a month? And that’s minuscule compared to private lands. Generally that fee is around $15-20 a month. So when you look at the grazing program as a whole – there was a GAO report that came out in 2005 that said that the administrative costs for the grazing program, federal land grazing program, Forest Service and BLM, in some cases national parks and wildlife refuges, was $144 million dollars a year. And the grazing fees that they received came out to somewhere around $23 million dollars a year. So that left a $121 million deficit, or subsidy, to support this grazing program on federal lands. It’s probably increased quite a bit in the last 12 years since that report came out. And of course that does not account for all of the costs. It doesn’t account for restoration of habitat destroyed by cattle and sheep. It doesn’t account for the loss of bighorn sheep on the landscape, or the loss of fisheries and sage grouse, and the killing of predators like wolves and grizzlies and mountain lions and black bears and coyotes.

So if you were to put a monetary value on those things, those services, which I hate to even say – we’re probably looking at a half billion or a billion dollars a year subsidy to graze livestock on public lands. And of course you’ve got the direct subsidies like drought subsidies and subsidies to the ranchers in the event that their allotment burns up. Those kinds of things. It’s just hard to calculate how much the American taxpayer, and our lands and wildlife are paying to keep these beasts on the land for private profit.

DJ: I know for cows, they like to present themselves as these poor independent ranchers who are just starving and barely making a living. But when you look at them, a lot of these people are running 10,000 head. And then also a lot of the owners are not simply Joe Cowboy, but Anheuser-Busch or other huge corporations. Is that also the case with the sheep?

KC: I think that the sheep operations generally are family-based. I know of one instance in Nevada, right next to Great Basin National Park, the Southern Nevada Water Authority has permits on some sheep-grazing allotments. And the Southern Nevada Water Authority, their general intent is to build pipelines to pipe a lot of water from Central Nevada down to Las Vegas. Cattle grazing is one of the things that – I mean, if you look at cattle grazing allotments, especially in Nevada, and mining companies own a lot of, have a lot of the permits. And in Idaho, Simplot Corporation has a lot of the permits. So it’s not generally small family ranchers who are grazing livestock on public lands, but when you look at sheep operations it’s generally family based. But they’re very wealthy families. The Lieutenant Governor of Idaho, his family grazes domestic sheep on public lands. And one of the most powerful state senators In Idaho, he’s a public lands sheep grazer. You look at the subsidies they receive, some of them have received $2 million in subsidies for sheep meat, wool. They’re subsidized to grow oats and barley that they feed to their sheep. So while they’re generally family-based, they’re very powerful families politically.

DJ: Right.

Do we have any idea of the approximate number of sheep grazing on public lands in the West?

KC: Oh boy. I’m not really sure. I would hazard a guess that it’s maybe 150, 200 thousand sheep?

DJ: Okay, that’s why I asked, because this pisses me off too. It’s like; we traded 60 million bison and happy healthy prairies for 40 million sick cows. I mean, it doesn’t even make sense on the level of actual biomass production. It’s just nuts. So in some ways, we’re trading one and a half to two million bighorn sheep for 200 thousand domestic sheep? That’s just nuts. Even on the level of producing biomass. This is crazy.

KC: Mmm-hmm.

DJ: I just had to get that off my chest.

KC: (laughing) I agree.

DJ: So we have about ten minutes left. I’m going to ask two questions here. One of them is: Under the current system, what would you be fighting for? What do you want to happen that is “politically realistic”? And second, if they made you in charge of bighorn sheep management, to use another horrible word, what would you do? So first, what would be politically realistic and secondly what would be ideal? Or you can go in the other direction.

KC: I guess what we should talk about is where we’re at in tackling this issue. In the Paiute National Forest, they issued a plan back in 2003, that received a bunch of appeals. Western Watersheds Project, who I used to work for, and Hell’s Canyon Preservation Council, the Nez Perce tribe. They all appealed the plan because it didn’t consider viability of bighorn sheep on Paiute forests, and they just continued the status quo with regards to domestic sheep grazing. So then the Forest Service in 2005, they found in favor on those appeals and there were some federal court lawsuits that basically told them that they needed to go back and do the viability assessments for bighorn sheep on the Forest. During that process there was a computer modeling program that looked at where the good habitat for bighorn sheep was, and how they used telemetry information to determine where that kind of habitat was, and what the likelihood was that bighorn sheep would use neighboring habitat for forays and to establish new areas to graze, etc. And when they did all of these calculations, they determined that to maintain that viability over the long term for bighorn sheep on the forest, they had to close 70% of the domestic sheep grazing on the Paiute National Forest. That was a big decision, a very impactful decision that I and other people are working to try to expand upon. Since then, the forest, the Region 4 Forest; western Wyoming, southern Idaho, Nevada, Utah – they’ve tried to use this program, this modeling tool, to calculate the risk of contact between domestic and bighorn sheep, and trying to get a handle on this precedent we’ve set, so that they don’t get sued anymore. They’re not doing a very good job, but it is something that we think is an effective way to address the issue. It’s not perfect, but it certainly, if they were to use the tool and make the tough decisions, they would see that they need to eliminate a lot of the domestic sheep grazing across a very large landscape.

Towards the end of the Obama administration, one of the few things that I saw out of the Obama administration that I really was happy about was the BLM has committed to using this tool as well. But there’s been very slow progress. I had meetings with different districts in Nevada and the staff there didn’t seem to be aware of this new instruction memorandum that told them that they had to use the tool to figure out where the conflicts were occurring. So that’s what’s going on now, is trying to educate the agencies about what they’re supposed to be doing, and if they don’t do that, groups like Western Watersheds Project and the others are probably going to litigate.

But of course Congress can always step in and screw that up.

DJ: Thank you for that. And so, going forward, what more would you like to see? Again, politically realistic, and also ideally, if they made you the emperor of all things big horn sheep?

KC: I’d rather they made me the emperor of all things domestic livestock crazy. I would eliminate it entirely. And I really think that is the major problem for bighorn sheep, is domestic sheep and the diseases that they carry. So I would eliminate domestic sheep grazing anywhere within 20-30 miles of bighorn sheep habitat.

DJ: Great, you just saved the American Public a half billion dollars! Thank you!

KC: Yeah. There are definitely some things like, I think it’s called the Rural Economic Vitalization Act. That’s basically a bill that has been introduced frequently over the years to allow for grazing permit buyouts? That’s just a pragmatic solution that I think might allow for closure of a lot of domestic sheep grazing. And some of that has been taking place in Wyoming and Idaho and Montana. There have been a few sheep grazing allotments that have been bought out and closed to domestic sheep grazing, because they’re in such close proximity to bighorns.

But currently, only in certain circumstances like the Owyhee Wilderness and the new Boulder White Clouds Wilderness in Idaho, and some other areas, is there any language in legislation that allows for permit buyouts and closures of allotments. Otherwise, a group could go to ranchers and say “Hey, we’ll pay you money to stop grazing and hand over your permit to the agency” and close the allotment.

But there’s no assurance that the agency won’t turn around and issue the permit to somebody else. So I’d like to see that happen, as far as being able to buy out allotments and have some assurance that they wouldn’t be reopened.

DJ: So we have like one minute left. If there’s anybody listening to this who is, especially in the western United States, but elsewhere too, if they want grazing to stop on public lands or they just want to help bighorn sheep, what can they actually do? Are there organizations they can join? What should they do?

KC: Well, Western Watersheds Project ( ) who I used to work for; this is one of their main focuses and they have a new person who works solely on this issue and I think she’s doing a great job. So I would support Western Watersheds Project. There are some other more regional groups that work on this issue. WildEarth Guardians is working on this issue. ( ) I think Center for Biological Diversity is working a little bit on this. ( ) I probably wouldn’t support some of the groups like – I’m not sure that I should say this. There are some groups that are more hunting focused, like that focus more on bighorn sheep. I think that they’re afraid to tackle the controversial issues, like domestic sheep grazing on public land. They’ll talk about it but they are very resistant to offending anybody, so that they can maintain political access.

DJ: Which seems really silly to me too, because if your focus is to shoot bighorn sheep, then it seems to me that you want more bighorn sheep, which seems to me that you want fewer domestic sheep. That seems pretty straightforward to me.

KC: Yeah. It’s a common thing, though, that ranchers have a lot of political influence and a lot of these groups are just afraid to confront that. Partly because their Board of Directors is filled with ranchers.

DJ: There you go.

So what would be your final word on this for today? About bighorn sheep?

KC: Well, while they have disappeared across a lot of areas, I think that there is some encouraging news on bighorn sheep. I think that there are some ways that we can reestablish populations and protect the populations that still exist on the landscape, through pressure on the agencies. Making them follow their own guidance.

DJ: This seems like one of those rare environmental issues that actually has a fairly straightforward, discrete problem. You can solve the problem using only one or two steps, as opposed to much larger – others are more systemic. There’s one problem, you solve it, problem solved.

KC: Yeah. But it’s a hard problem to solve, because it’s fairly ubiquitous across the landscape.

DJ: Right.

Well thank you so much for your work, and thank you for being on the program. I would like to thank listeners for listening. My guest today has been Ken Cole, this is Derrick Jensen for Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network.

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