SACRAMENTO (CN) - The federal government is failing to protect Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep from habitat destruction and predators, domestic sheep ranchers claim in Federal Court.
Nevada-based F.I.M Corp. and its owners Fred Fulstone, Marianne Leinassar and Kristofor Leinassar sued the U.S. Departments of the Interior and Agriculture, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and their top national and regional officials, under the Endangered Species Act and Administrative Procedures Act.
F.I.M is a family owned domestic sheep operation with extensive lands in the wilderness of Mono County, Calif. and Lyons County, Nev. Fulstone's ancestors homesteaded in the area in 1854 and began raising cattle and sheep in 1910, eventually forming F.I.M Corp. in 1972.
"From the beginning, F.I.M. has been a steward of the wildlife and other natural resources as the family's history, culture and way of life are centered around healthy and productive rangelands that are essential for herding sheep on open range as the major component of their ranching operations," the complaint states. "F.I.M. relies on these agricultural enterprises and the health of the surrounding environment for their income, survival, their way of life, their ability to employ up to 20 people, and their ability to contribute to the customs and economy of the community. The 'take' of SNBS [Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep] is threatening their livelihood and the future opportunity for each generation to continue with their family traditions."
The ranchers say they have been trying to save Sierra Nevada bighorns [Ovis Canadensis californiana aka Ovis Canadensis sierrae] from extinction since the 1980s, voluntarily making "substantial and costly changes" to their own sheepherding operations to protect the bighorns. They've also achieved applicant status in Endangered Species Act consultations with federal agencies, according to the complaint.
The ranchers say the Departments of Interior and Agriculture Departments are moving bighorns sheep to Mono, Inyo and Lyons counties in a misguided effort to protect dwindling populations. The area doesn't provide a suitable year-round habitat for the bighorns, the ranchers say.
"Currently, five subpopulations of Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep are reported by FWS [Fish and Wildlife Service] defendants to occur at Lee Vining Canyon, Wheeler Crest, Mt. Baxter, Mt. Williamson and Mt. Langley in Mono and Inyo Counties, three of which have been reintroduced using sheep obtained from the Mt. Baxter subpopulation beginning in 1979. The translocated Lee Vining Canyon herds currently occupy habitat on Mt. Warren, elevation 12,327 ft. and Mt. Gibbs, elevation 12,773 ft., at some of the higher points along the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range.
"FWS defendants rely on reports which state that most Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep live between elevations of 10,000 and 14,000 ft. in summer. In winter, they occupy high, windswept ridges, or migrate to the lower elevation sagebrush-steppe habitat as low as 4,800 ft. to escape deep winter snows and find more nutritious forage. Lambing areas are on safe, precipitous rocky slopes. They prefer open terrain where they are better able to see predators. For these reasons, forests and thick brush usually are avoided if possible," the ranchers say in their complaint.
The ranchers claim that the only naturally occurring populations of bighorns are in the Fish and Wildlife Services' "Southern Recovery Unit" near Mt. Baxter, which straddles Fresno and Inyo Counties.
The federal government moved many of those animals north - as far as Lee Vining Canyon at the eastern entrance of Yosemite National Park - to try to save the species.
But it didn't work, the ranchers say. They say the bighorns are dying in larger numbers.
"Since the initial translocation of the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep into Lee Vining Canyon in 1986, herds in the NRU [northern recovery unit] have experienced high mortality and low growth rates due to the unavailability of sufficient low elevation winter range or their abandonment of its use due to mountain lion predation. Their circumstances have repeatedly demonstrated the peril in which the FWS defendants have placed these animals. Severe winters with deep snow in 1995, 1998, 2005, 2008 and 2010-2011 resulted in decimated NRU herd population numbers with malnutrition (starvation) and accidents, such as avalanches and falls from ice-covered rocks, causing the deaths of many bighorn sheep," the ranchers claim.
They continue: "The lowest elevation of suitable, available and accessible low-elevation winter range in the NRU is 7,546 ft. above sea level; in the central unit it is 5,578 ft; and in the southern unit it is 4,756 ft. This is a difference in the lowest elevation winter ranges between the northern and southern units of 2,790 ft. The drastic difference in the availability of suitable, available and accessible low-elevation winter range means the difference between extreme numbers of Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep deaths during heavy winters and survival of the individual bighorns. The ESA [Endangered Species Act] prohibits all take of a species, even of a single individual of the species. These winter-related bighorn sheep deaths have exceeded and will continue to exceed the take of Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep that be authorized under permit, and the harsh winters exact a heavy toll beyond any permitted activities under the ESA. The bighorns are further imperiled by translocations into the NRU because the Mt. Warren and Mt. Gibbs herds do not use low-elevation winter habitat due to mountain lion predation."
The last sighting of a bighorn north of Mammoth Lakes was in 1878, the ranchers say, and empirical evidence suggests that the area covered by the NRU has never been well populated by the animals because of frequent deep snow and harsh conditions.
But herds in areas to the south flourished - which is why federal agencies used them to start northern herds beginning in 1979.
State wildlife officials moved 103 bighorns north, over the opposition of biologists, who concluded that during years of extreme snowpack in Lee Vining Canyon, "'winter lamb survival and spring lamb production may be reduced,'" according to the complaint. Despite promises by FWS to rescue survivors if herds suffered, 20 of the 38 bighorns relocated to Lee Vining Canyon died from 1987 to 1989.
Federal efforts to bolster the bighorn population resulted in further decimation of the herds, with the biggest losses coming during California's wettest and harshest winters, the ranchers claim.
"During the winter of 1995, the herd translocated into the NRU suffered in excess of a 65 percent mortality rate in one year, dropping from more than 85 Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep to just 29 survivors. Additional catastrophic death losses occurred in the winters of 1998, 2005, 2008 and 2010-2011. In each of these years, the bighorns suffered from malnutrition and died because of starvation and other weather-related causes, yet FWS defendants failed to initiate a rescue effort. Between 1995 and 2000, the NRU population declines continued. Winter death losses in 1998 led to the emergency listing of the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep as endangered in 1999," the complaint states.
In 2000, only 21 bighorns remained in the NRU and only four were found in Lee Vining Canyon. But FWS continued to relocate animals from the south to the north until 2009.
The ranchers claim herd population fluctuates but continues to decline. Numbers in the NRU dropped from 41 bighorns to 26, and only 11 are females, while in the south the population has increased - providing translocation stock for future ill-fated moves.
Winter conditions in California so far this year do not bode well for bighorns. Current snow depths for the area around Lee Vining Canyon range from 4 to more than 18 feet.
Unfortunately for the Sierra Nevada bighorn, the average animal reaches a height of just 3 feet at the shoulders.
The ranchers seek declaratory and injunctive relief, including an order stopping the federal government from relocating bighorns north. They also want adequate predator control and full compliance with the Endangered Species Act.
They are represented by Brenda Davis in Sacramento and Louis Test with Hoffman & Test in Reno, Nev.