One hundred years ago, the fleet-footed Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep kept time to the mountains, moving upslope to summer pastures in the spring, down slope to winter ranges in the fall when blizzards beset the high Sierra.
They roamed between Olancha and Bridgeport, walking knife-edged ridges, dodging mountain lions and avalanches, sleeping under a thick, warm blanket of snow when temperatures plummeted to 10 below.
Then, in the course of a half century, they almost disappeared, knocked from their high and lofty perches by disease, habitat loss and other factors scientists are still trying to understand.
By 1999, there were just 100 of the sheep left in the world. Their closest relatives, the Desert bighorn of the Great Basin country and the Rocky Mountain bighorn, were separated by huge swathes of land, making interbreeding impossible.
The Sierra bighorn was headed for extinction. But a last minute push to save the sheep took hold and they landed in the middle of the federal Endangered Species list, a designation that funnels money and resources into recovery plans for those on the list.
Today, there are about 400 sheep roaming the wild canyons and ridges along the crest of the Sierra and scientists believe they could well make it off the list within the decade.
But along the way, the fierce efforts to save the sheep have taken prisoners, tearing into an old way of life and leaving some of Mono County’s few remaining domestic sheep herders struggling to survive.
The problem, scientists say, is domestic sheep can pass down deadly diseases to the Sierra bighorn. To solve this, domestic sheep grazers had been forced to give up grazing on allotment after allotment up and down the Sierra.
The impact has been especially profound in Northern Mono County where the wild, rolling hills once supported huge herds of domestic sheep until federal land managers closed certain ranges to grazing. It was a final straw for many ranchers, already beset by a modern world intent on moving on without them.
So last Tuesday, when Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Dr. Tom Stephenson was in Bridgeport to update the county supervisors about the bighorn’s status, he was expecting controversy.
“We don’t want to hurt the bighorn, but we want to stay in business,” said Marianne Leinassar, a rancher with FIM Corporation who runs domestic sheep near the Conway Summit area.
She was especially frustrated with Stephenson’s worries about some of her grazing allotments, which he said were pushing up against – or in – prime bighorn territory.
“I want to stay in business, for me, for my son,” she said. “And we are out there every day. We know that land, we always account for every sheep, we better the resource, and we have never seen one bighorn out there.
“It’s always the ‘potential of risk,’ it’s always what ‘might happen,’” she said with clear frustration. “But to make a sweeping statement that we have a risk (of transmitting diseases between domestic sheep and bighorn), I haven’t seen any proof of it. How many years do I have to say I’m protecting the resource? Why can’t I say I’m protecting the property?”
Tim Hansen, North County’s District 4 supervisor, who has been advocating on behalf of the remaining domestic sheep grazers in his district since he took office two years ago, echoed her frustration.
“They have already given up Bloody Canyon and Tamarack Peak, Tamarack Canyon, and Dunderberg Peak,” he said. “We’ve got a Rover on Mars and no one can prove who’s carrying the disease – and we’ve got a livelihood and a culture that’s being trashed.”
“If you lose a band, you can lose a paycheck for the year,” said George Milovich, the Mono and Inyo County agricultural commissioner, quoting lamb prices.
Stephenson said the science supporting the transmission of deadly respiratory diseases is strong, and he urged the county supervisors to support actions that would protect the Conway area for the bighorn. He stopped short of saying all domestic sheep needed to be removed, an opening that some county supervisors were quick to jump on.
“I think we should pursue your idea of fencing the area,” said Supervisor Larry Johnston to Stephenson, seeking a pragmatic solution. Other options might be to rotate grazing times for the domestic sheep so they are not on the property when bighorn rams are in rut and traveling, Stephenson said.
All possible options should be pursued, Johnston and other supervisors said, noting that the Conway Ranch area was owned by the county and operated under a policy that includes protecting “traditional ways of life” – including sheep herding – on the Conway Ranch area. But Hansen, who leaves office at the end of the year, didn’t seem reassured.
“Maybe we cannot wait for 12 years to have another meeting on this,” he said.