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Shoshone forest strikes balance with pack goat rules

January 3, 2018 GMT

The Shoshone National Forest has adopted a plan that appeases both the goat packing community and biologists trying to protect bighorn sheep from deadly diseases.

Concern about pathogens spreading from domestic to wild native ungulates prompted Shoshone officials to temporarily ban goat packing in 2011 on the majority of the forest’s nearly 2.5 million acres. The North American Packgoat Association sued, winning in part, and the disagreement continued after the forest issued long-term plans in draft form last year that weren’t viewed favorably by either party involved.

Then the stakeholders aired out their views and found a middle ground, and the Shoshone honored the pact, reflecting the agreement when it released final plans in late December.

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“My hat is off to the stakeholders,” said Steve Kilpatrick, the Wyoming Wild Sheep Foundation executive director and a Jackson resident, who was in the thick of the negotiations. “This usually doesn’t happen.”

Held in Lander in August and September, the meetings brought the North American Packgoat Association, the Shoshone National Forest, the National Wild Sheep Foundation and other stakeholders together. The U.S. Forest Service brought in a professional moderator to keep things productive. The kumbaya approach to settling differences worked, said Charlie Jennings, then-president of the Packgoat Association.

“She [the moderator] said we could either get involved in a head-butting contest and not accomplish anything,” Jennings said, “or we could try to see things from each other’s perspective and meet somewhere in the middle.”

“We felt like we compromised, and we worked out a solution that’s a win-win,” he said. “We’re good with it.”

The balance that was struck prohibits pack goats from territory used by core bighorn sheep herds in the Absaroka Range and Wind River Mountains. It was a concession the goat packers were willing to make, partially because of lack of use and the undesirable nature of the Absaroka as a goat packing destination.

“North of Whiskey Mountain is infested with grizzlies,” Jennings said. “Frankly I didn’t want to go in there anyway.”

Permits will required to bring the pack animals into the Shoshone in areas where they are allowed, which include the entire Washakie Ranger District and the southern reaches of the Wind River Ranger District. The Temple Peak Herd roams the area between the two pack-goat-friendly zones, but the Wyoming Game and Fish Department manage it as a lower-priority herd. The state agency agreed with the Shoshone that the Temple Peak sheep could be subject to a higher level of risk.

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The Shoshone’s decision also calls for goat packers to abide by a strict set of rules, like stringing no more than three animals per person, leashing their goats and possessing proof of vaccinations.

The goat packers brought the mandatory restrictions to the table. Kilpatrick was impressed with the initiative.

“They certainly have concerns for bighorn sheep as well as their own recreational interests,” he said. “It’s a good example of responsible recreation and stewardship for the native species that are there.”

No Shoshone National Forest officials were available for an interview Tuesday.

Kilpatrick said Shoshone officials “almost took verbatim” the agreement that the North American Packgoat Association reached with bighorn conservationists.

Regional Forester Brian Ferebee, who OK’d the forest’s plans last month, wrote in his draft decision that he’s taking a “cautious approach” that recognizes the “very large and long-lasting” impact goats could have on the Shoshone’s prized sheep herds. The Shoshone also issued a final environmental impact statement that accompanied the decision. The public can object to the plans through Feb. 13.

“The magnitude of the consequences if disease were to be transmitted from pack goats to bighorn sheep places the risk of allowing pack goat use within occupied habitat for core native bighorn sheep herds beyond an acceptable risk,” Ferebee wrote.

The Shoshone and its rugged mountains house the most robust remaining bighorn sheep populations in Wyoming. About 4,500 of the Equality State’s estimated 6,000 bighorns live there, including six of the eight core herds — populations that were never extirpated. They roam as near to Jackson Hole as the Whiskey Mountain Herd, found outside Dubois in the northern Winds.

Bighorns are thought to have numbered as many 2 million before the West was settled, but they were nearly wiped out by overhunting, overgrazing and the spread of bacterial pathogens that domestic sheep carry innocuously but are deadly to the native sheep.

“The Native Americans used to say that when the white man showed up with their white sheep, the bighorns left,” Kilpatrick said. “Well, they died, is what happened.”

Domestic sheep grazing has disappeared from the Shoshone’s core herd areas, leaving pack goats as a potential disease transmission vector that has drawn managers’ attention. The practice of using goats in lieu of mules and horses to schlepp gear into the backcountry has gained popularity with elderly hikers, as well as with families and bow hunters, Jennings said.

The science linking goats used for packing to pneumonia in bighorn sheep, however, is much less clear than with domestic sheep. There has never been a documented case of a pack goat transmitting disease to a wild sheep. While domestic goats can carry pathogens that are usually fatal in wild sheep, when the two species have been experimentally penned together, there have not been catastrophic die-offs.

Many questions still remain, said Jennings, who wants Shoshone officials to be flexible if new science emerges.

Kilpatrick, in the meantime, is hopeful that the Shoshone’s pack goat planning process could be a template for other national forests with at-risk bighorn populations. The Bridger-Teton and Caribou-Targhee are among those that lack similar regulations, he said, but have the opportunity to develop them through upcoming forest plan revisions.

“We need to have that open discussion that we had with the Shoshone,” Kilpatrick said, “which worked well, by the way.”