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Wild Sheep Foundation Returns After Successful Trip to The Hill

September 11, 2018

Bozeman, Montana. September 11th, 2018. As representatives of the Wild Sheep Foundation (WSF) and its chapters and affiliates departed from Washington, D.C., on Friday September 7th, the delegation spoke animatedly about the many objectives achieved on Capitol Hill. They had all come to D.C. in high hopes of making a difference through outreach and education to national leaders in the House, Senate, Department of Interior, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and the Forest Service (FS). The delegation summarized the outcome of the weeklong trip with “mission accomplished.” 

Three days earlier, as the WSF and C&A team met in the lobby of their D.C. hotel last Wednesday morning, hopes were high to execute a seemingly endless itinerary and create change that could be realized back home. The group consisted of WSF Marketing and Communications Director Garrett Long, James Bradshaw of the Fraternity of the Desert Bighorn, Greg Smith of Nevada Bighorns Unlimited, Bruce Mincher of Idaho WSF, Walter Chuck of Oregon Foundation for North American Wild Sheep, Brian Solan of Montana WSF, Bryan Bartlett of New Mexico WSF, WSF board of directors member Jim Wilson, Melanie Woolever who serves on WSF’s Legislative Affairs Committee and Professional Resource Advisory Board, and Greg Schildwachter from Watershed Results. 

“We were all pretty excited to get into the ring and figure out solutions to wild sheep conservation problems back home,” said Long. “As we press our issues on the ground year after year, trying to implement change, we need the elected and appointed officials back in D.C. to engage with us.  They hear many competing demands on multiple-use Federal lands that make up most of the sheep habitat in the country.  They can easily forget about ours if we’re not showing up.  That created an overwhelming sense of purpose among the group, but an equally strong sense of pressure to execute objectives. A person gets a half hour to state everything they need help with in their region, make it meaningful enough to stick, and actually evoke change.”

The meetings started with Representative Mark Amodei of Nevada, who has great interest in the proposed military land withdrawals that would take more land away from the Desert National Wildlife Refuge (DNWR) and expand the Fallon Naval Air Station, adding to the already 2.9 million acres owned by the United States Air Force (USAF) in Nevada.

“We are huge advocates for military readiness, and support USAF and the Navy in keeping the nation safe,” Smith of Nevada Bighorns Unlimited said during talks with Amodei. “We do, however, want to know if it’s possible to do it somewhere else. The DNWR is the only refuge dedicated to desert bighorn sheep conservation, and losing access to that land would be detrimental to conserving the species, and would possibly reverse years of prior conservation work that has successfully helped the species along this far.” 

Following Smith’s comments, Representative Amodei called his liaison at USAF and, as WSF’s delegation was there to witness, began working on forming a group that would assess possible risks and examine other areas potentially better suited for military training purposes. Smith was overwhelmed by Amodei’s immediate active response.

We found similar energetic support from New Mexico Senator Martin Heinrich, who was particularly interested in separation of wild and domestic sheep along the Rio Grande Gorge and Carson National Forest. Bartlett of New Mexico WSF explained to the senator that in some cases a mere quarter mile separates domestic and wild sheep, and New Mexico has an opportunity to avoid an all-age die-off like other areas have seen. 

“Listening to Senator Heinrich was impressive,” said Bartlett. “He seemed to know the issues before I had even mentioned them. He is a true sportsman who is obviously passionate about conservation.” The outcome of the meeting was Senator Heinrich stating his commitment to work with the FS and the BLM with a heightened level of accountability that will be critical to wild sheep conservation.

Another highlight of the trip was a meeting with the new Interim Chief of the FS Vicki Christiansen, with whom the delegation addressed the responsibility of the FS to assess risk of domestic sheep grazing permits in wild sheep habitat.

“For the past three years, congressional direction has required the FS to properly investigate risk of contact between wild and domestic sheep, and work with both parties to perpetuate a multiple-use approach that allows for a viable domestic sheep industry, while also ensuring that wild sheep aren’t dying on the mountain from coming into contact with domestic sheep,” Long told Christiansen. “We want to see those directions realized on the ground, and we have been and will continue to help you with that.” 

Solan of Montana WSF then added, “In Montana, we have had a lot of success addressing the interests of both parties. We have found that without collaboration with the domestic sheep community, we will never achieve our conservation goals for wild sheep. We continue to support domestic sheep production, and always will, as long as we can maintain safe separation distances between wild and domestic sheep. In many cases, we have reached agreement, and it has led to great relationships and future prospects for both parties. This a model we can use elsewhere.” 

After listening to comments from the other representatives of the WSF delegation regarding challenges in their unique regions, Christiansen offered hope. “I understand the ask here,” she said, “and I think this is something we can execute.” 
Many of the meetings produced similar hope, with the delegation visiting government representatives from each of their home states to educate them on the key priorities and challenges for wild sheep conservation back at home. Each congressperson offered a response, sharing their view of the issues and outlining how they plan to address each concern. 

This was one week of effort for the growing WSF advocacy program.  Long sees the wheels beginning to turn with the strong and educated voices of conservation that WSF and its C&A leaders at the table in our nation’s capital. The momentum will continue to build, he explains, with WSF delegation members and the leads of all the chapters and affiliates following up with their US senators and representatives and with Christiansen and other governmental agency heads. “Holding them accountable is the key,” Long explains. He adds that WSF members can buttress these efforts by contacting their senators and representatives to reinforce the importance of wild sheep conservation in their home states and on federal lands.

“Overall, the meetings we had were extremely positive,” Long reflected. “Our representatives in D.C. are critical for us to achieve WSF’s goals for wild sheep conservation. After our meetings this past week, we are one step closer.”

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