Agricultural interests steer Colorado’s wildlife management

These days, any search for bighorn sheep in southwestern Colorado is an exercise in desperation. Bighorn hunters and advocates must train their eyes on game trails and alpine valleys and knolls, looking for a patch of gray-brown hide, for ewes grazing, for rams on cliff faces. They listen for rocks tumbling through canyons, or the baseball-bat crack of two rams butting heads. Fewer than 500 bighorns roam the 760 square miles of this rugged section of the Rocky Mountains. Still, desperation be damned, a group of citizen volunteers ventured out this August in search of them.

They were led by one of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers’ unpaid leaders: The Colorado southwest regional director, Dan Parkinson, an earnest outdoorsman, who, from a certain angle, looks strikingly like actor Tommy Lee Jones. At 4:30 that morning, they began hiking in the predawn quiet, settling into a high-alpine valley, where tree cover was still sparse from a 2002 wildfire. They set up their spotting scopes and binoculars on the crest of a hill overlooking the Weminuche Wilderness, where the Vallecito Creek herd has been known to roam. “Look for white butts,” a local guide advised them. “Like a pair of long johns on a clothing line.” As the morning wore on, one volunteer, Laurie Parkinson, pulled her watering eyes from her binoculars. “I can’t do this anymore,” she said wearily. But after a few minutes, hope got the better of her, and she was back to glassing. By the end of the day, she’d seen nothing. No one had.

Sightings these days are few and far between. In the late 19th century, surveying parties survived arduous journeys by eating the meat of bighorn sheep; they described mountainsides “tramped full of (bighorn) tracks.” But by the 1960s, Rocky Mountain bighorns across Colorado had almost been wiped out. Though the bighorn has been the state animal since 1961, the first count of the species wasn’t done until 1962, when it recorded a population of just 96 bighorns in the Weminuche, a remote wilderness in southern Colorado. Today, that population has grown to an estimated 460 bighorns across nearly 500,000 acres — a far cry from the population that once roamed here before Western expansion. Anyone who has ever accompanied Parkinson into the Weminuche has heard him ask: “What’s missing here?” His answer is always: “Bighorns.”

Volunteers Kara Armano and Laurie Parkinson peer into the morning light illuminating the east face of Endlich Mesa in search of bighorns. Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

Parkinson had brought the volunteers into the mountains to help fill in some gaps in the data regarding how bighorns move across the landscape, an urgent need right now, as the U.S. Forest Service and state agencies consider the future of livestock grazing in the Weminuche Wilderness. The decision looms amid criticism of Colorado’s wildlife managers, who, some say, have lost their ability to actually protect wildlife. In general, they blame shifting priorities and politics in a downsized state agency. But more particularly, where bighorns are concerned, they blame the domestic sheep industry. In fact, just four miles west of the volunteers lay the summer pastures of the greatest threat to the Weminuche bighorns: the sheep herd of a rancher named J. Paul Brown.

Brown, meanwhile, sees the bighorn advocates as a threat to his own way of life and livelihood. Two months earlier, I’d visited Brown on his thousand-plus-acre ranch outside Ignacio, Colorado. “This bighorn fight is discouraging to our sons, because here they are investing life into this business with the thought that it could just be a waste,” Brown told me as we walked past his lambing pens. “We’re always wondering if they’re just going to take it away from us after we’ve worked so hard.” Outside, a duvet cover was hung out to dry over the edge of a second-story balcony, framed by the smoke plumes of two massive summer wildfires. “My dad used to say that the high country,” Brown said, “that God made it for sheep.”

‘DISREGARDING THE SCIENCE’

If God made the high country for the sheep, then he also made their wild cousins’ worst enemy: Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae. Called M. ovi for short, the bacteria passes from domestic carriers to wild sheep, often leading to pneumonia and death. M. ovi was first detected in a flock of domestic sheep in Australia in 1974. In 1985, two bighorns at a Canadian zoo developed the disease after they came into contact with domestic sheep. A year later, the Canadian Journal of Veterinary Research provided the first evidence that domestic sheep and goats pass the bacteria to bighorns. People have been arguing about it ever since.

In the American West, the disease has obliterated historic bighorn populations, especially in the Rocky Mountains. In Idaho’s Hells Canyon, for example, 10,000 bighorn once roamed the region around today’s Payette National Forest. By the 1940s, however, disease and habitat loss from domestic grazing had nearly wiped out the population. Similarly, in the Weminuche, researchers suspect that the Vallecito Creek herd has declined due to its exposure to nearby grazing domestic sheep. Wildlife managers typically separate domestic sheep and bighorn populations: Salt licks encourage bighorns to stay in safe areas, while herding dogs and gunshots scare them away from high-risk contact. In Colorado, a new strategy of allowing herders to kill bighorns that come in contact with their sheep is also being considered.

The Weminuche bighorns comprise three herds, considered particularly special because they contain mostly native, non-transplanted animals and still have robust DNA that can be mixed with that of other struggling herds to strengthen their populations. Because of this, they’ve been given “tier 1” status by the Colorado Parks and Wildlife agency. The Vallecito Creek, Sheep Mountain and Cimarrona Peak herds are among the last native herds in the state. On the morning I went out with Dan Parkinson, we were in search of the Vallecito Creek herd, which has only an estimated 70 animals left and is the most vulnerable to a total die-off if its members contract M. ovi. Already, the herd is showing signs of possible exposure. The population has stagnated, and studies are currently underway to evaluate whether it has begun to decline. The survival rate of Vallecito lambs is low, and new additions to the herd often die — both indications of the disease. And because Vallecito rams are likely to migrate to other herds to breed with ewes, if the disease hits here, it will likely spread to the other two herds. All it would take to prevent this is the prudent separation of the bighorns from the domestics. But that has proven surprisingly hard to achieve. To understand why, you have to understand Colorado’s agricultural politics.

Paul Brown has been sheep ranching in southwestern Colorado for more than four decades. He and his wife, Debbie, built their ranch by transforming lands from “nothing but sagebrush and piñon-juniper” into productive land for their lamb and cattle operation. They started with little more than a “beat-up old red pickup truck” and a mobile home, in 1980. A few years later, they moved to their current property, grain silos dotting the horizon of a flat, shrubby expanse that had no running water or electricity. The Browns created an idyllic life, the family bonding over the breakfast table and in sheep camps high in the Weminuche alpine — J. Paul, Debbie and their four sons.

As Brown built up his ranch, he also built his political career, serving as a commissioner for La Plata County and as president of the local school board. In 2010, he was elected to the state House, part of the Tea Party wave. During his tenure, Brown, a Republican, proved himself one of the most conservative members of Colorado’s Legislature. In 2011, he was dubbed “the bear guy,” for sponsoring a bill to overturn a 1992 restriction on bear hunting. (The measure ultimately failed.) In 2012, Brown was defeated by a moderate Democrat, Mike McLachlan, who became something of a political nemesis of his amid the purpling politics of the state. In 2014, Brown took back the seat from McLachlan, with the help of record-shattering donations from outside groups, including more than $50,000 from the agricultural sector. But in 2016, he lost to Barbara Hall McLachlan (Mike McLachlan’s wife) and, earlier this year, announced that he wouldn’t run again.

Much of his time these days is focused on fighting to maintain his sheep operation — a 1,000-acre ranch, with about 35,000 acres across three grazing allotments in the wilderness, leased from the Forest Service. Brown is the only sheepherder in the Weminuche, Colorado’s largest wilderness area. He has stubbornly held onto his operation with the help of the American Sheep Industry Association and the Colorado Wool Growers Association. Brown told me he believes more research, as yet unpublished, will prove that M. ovi can spread between deer, elk and bison, thereby letting his sheep off the hook. “We’re getting more and more science,” Brown said. “I have nothing against the bighorns, but let’s use good science and not try to get us off the range just to get us off the range.”

The sheep industry makes similar arguments, including attacks on bighorn science. Bonnie Brown (no relation to J. Paul), the executive director for the Colorado Wool Growers Association, argues that bighorn sheep advocates are ignoring other factors that impact wild populations, such as predation, habitat, stress and inbreeding. “It’s important to know that the science isn’t settled,” she told me. “It’s emerging. Just because something happened in a forced-enclosure-pen setting — that does not mean it happened on the open range. Let’s try to find out what the answers are. Otherwise, you’re looking at family ranches going out of business.”

But science is a process, its results are always emerging, and the vast majority of scientists who work on bighorns agree on the risk. “When you put domestic sheep together with bighorn sheep, the bighorn sheep die,” said Thomas Besser, a Washington State University professor of microbiology who has studied disease in bighorn sheep for a decade. “That’s been repeated over a dozen times and by many different investigators and many different sources.”

To bighorn advocates, industry arguments sound a lot like those made by the tobacco industry — or climate change deniers. There’s already an abundance of scientific consensus, they say, and the risk of exposure is not worth it.

In a 2014 study from Washington State University, for example, two experiments sought to better understand M. ovi transmission. Six wild ewes, captured in Oregon, were housed in two pens. The bighorns in the second pen were exposed to one domestic sheep with M. ovi. All of the bighorns in the exposed pen contracted M. ovi, and all of them fell ill with a condition similar to pneumonia. And ultimately, all of them died. “The most striking finding of the experiments reported here was the high transmissibility of (M. ovi) and the consistent pneumonia that followed infection of bighorn sheep,” the study concluded. The Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, a consortium comprising 23 wildlife agencies from the West, currently recommends that wild sheep and domestic sheep be separated to minimize the probability of disease transmission. The Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management’s own “risk contact model” recommends keeping wild and domestic sheep apart by 15 miles. But it’s not an exact science: Bighorn rams on foray have been documented traveling much farther than 20 miles.

In other words, research tells us that domestic sheep infect wild sheep, and the best way to keep sheep apart is to separate them. And yet in the Weminuche, the Forest Service, echoing the recommendations of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, has kept three high-risk allotments — those leased to J. Paul Brown — open to grazing, with less than a five-mile buffer between their easternmost boundaries and the known boundary of the native bighorn range. This is justified, they say, because the boundaries are split by Vallecito Creek, a natural buffer.

“You might as well be trying to keep (bighorn sheep) out with a piece of cellophane, for crying out loud,” Melanie Woolever, the former leader of the Forest Service’s National Bighorn Sheep Program, told me. “Five miles is nothing.” Woolever led the team that developed the risk-of-contact model around bighorn and domestic sheep conflicts. She retired three years ago after nearly four decades with the agency. “I absolutely think (the Forest Service) is disregarding the science here,” she said. “Colorado has all this connected habitat. To expect bighorn sheep not to move through all that connected habitat, moving up and down looking for breeding opportunities, including domestic sheep, it’s ridiculous. It’s inconsistent with what we know about the biology of sheep and the science of this whole issue.”

The question is: Why is it still happening?

Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

AN AGENCY ‘SEIZED BY AGRICULTURAL INTERESTS’

Colorado’s current administration includes Agricultural Commissioner Don Brown (no relation to J. Paul), a third-generation dairy and corn farmer from Yuma, Colorado, and former president of the Future Farmers of America, a youth group with ties to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. The director of Colorado Parks and Wildlife is Bob Broscheid, the former director of the Arizona Natural Resources Review Council, which was created to tie natural resource management to the state’s economic development.

One morning in January, both men addressed a gathering of the agency’s wildlife commission — in a way that demonstrates the agency’s current direction. Inside the Hunter Education Building in downtown Denver, over a breakfast buffet brimming with sausage, eggs and orange juice, Don Brown first addressed the room.

“Words matter,” the agriculture commissioner said, “and the way that folks have been describing — protecting, protecting, the bighorns — you would think domestic sheep must be doing something bad to bighorns! I imagine these domestic sheep in full body armor.” He laughed before he continued, “And I see the bighorn on the other side, saying, ‘Incoming, take cover!’ ” The joke seemed not to land in the quiet room. Brown then went on to praise the leadership of Colorado Parks and Wildlife under Broscheid, calling him “a breath of fresh air.” “I greatly appreciate you,” he said to the head of the agency, “and your approach to agriculture.”

Broscheid then took the stage. “Thank you, commissioner, for all your kind words, and right back at you,” he said. “I’m glad we’re arm-in-arm on a lot of these things. … Without ag, we won’t have wildlife.”

When Woolever, the former head of the Forest Service’s bighorn program, heard about the exchange, she balked. “I’m incredibly frustrated,” she said. “It feels like the deck is so stacked against bighorn sheep, specifically, and wildlife in general right now. … The agencies are seemingly uninterested in even following the science. … It seems like their intent is maintaining the status quo for the consumptive users of the forest versus the amenity values or wildlife values.”

In part, that’s because agriculture holds a certain amount of nostalgic political power in Colorado. The state’s leaders have a long history of propping up its agricultural sector, a nearly $8 billion industry that receives more than $165 million in state and federal subsidies each year.

Yet even with the support it receives, the industry is struggling to reach its historic numbers. According to the latest census of agriculture, conducted by the USDA, Colorado’s sheep and goat farming industry was among the most lucrative in the country, surpassed only by Texas and California. But in Colorado and across the rest of the country, the sheep industry has been in a steady decline since its peak in 1942, when there were more than 56 million sheep in production. In the mid-1990s, sheep inventory dipped below 10 million nationwide, for the first time. The number of sheep-ranching operations has fallen from more than 110,000 in 1987 to fewer than 60,000 today.

As producers go out of business in increasingly isolated rural areas, the middlemen who do the processing, packaging and distribution lose the incentive to serve those areas. As a result, groups like the Colorado Wool Growers Association and American Lamb Industry Association struggle to maintain the infrastructure. Even a single rancher — J. Paul Brown in the Weminuche, for example — is crucial to the industry’s survival. “The American sheep industry is doing all it can to encourage more sheep to try to hold that infrastructure together,” Brown told me. “We’re part of that. It’s important that we keep a certain amount of sheep in the country or it will all fall apart.”

Even as its slice of the economic pie gets smaller, the wool industry continues to wield surprising political power. In 2016, for example, wool industry lobbyists succeeded in including positive language in the Omnibus Appropriations Bill around maintaining a rancher’s “right” to graze sheep on public lands. When Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, submitted the final text of the bill on behalf of the Committee on Appropriations, it included verbatim text from a September 2016 letter from the American Sheep Industry Association. The text requires land agencies to go through the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service to verify claims of high-risk contact areas and to make vacant grazing allotments available to ranchers whose land becomes unusable because of bighorn conflicts. In this year’s Appropriations Act, the directive was carried over with no change. Additionally, a similar amendment included in the farm bill would ensure that ranchers with grazing permits are able to continue grazing despite natural disasters or conflicts with wildlife. The rider recently passed the House but, as of this writing, was stalled in the Senate.

This all adds up to a small — and shrinking — industry using its influence to steer long-term grazing legislation in its favor. In Colorado, the industry wields its influence through Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Forest Service share a mandate to find the best use of the landscape. “Our approach is to manage for effective separation between bighorn sheep and domestic sheep to reduce the likelihood of physical contact and potential pathogen transmission from domestic sheep to bighorn sheep,” San Juan National Forest Supervisor Kara Chadwick wrote in an email. “We continue to manage for viable populations of bighorn sheep while implementing our multiple-use mandate and permitting domestic sheep grazing. Both activities contribute to the local economy and serve the public. As the Weminuche project moves forward, the final decision will be made using the results from recent monitoring and best available science.”

When High Country News reached out to Colorado Parks and Wildlife for comment on this story, Lauren Truitt, spokeswoman for the agency, wrote in an email: “(Parks and Wildlife) and the Forest Service are currently working on a special process in the Weminuche to inform future decisions and current management actions. The project will utilize data from collared animals, tissue samples from wild bighorn sheep, citizen science, and various adaptive management strategies to manage for reasonable and effective separation. Our approach will continue to focus on using science, partnerships and collaboration to achieve lasting conservation outcomes.” Patt Dorsey, the southwest region manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, said her agency recognizes the science around bighorns, but needs to similarly acknowledge the heritage of the sheep industry. In part of the Weminuche grazing draft plan, she wrote: “We recognize that the potential for contact remains high in several allotments. We think adequate separation can be achieved by clarifying the roles and responsibilities of the permittee (Brown).”

But critics say that those attitudes do not honor the spirit of “multiple use.” Instead, they favor agriculture — and specifically J. Paul Brown. They point to a counterexample in southern Colorado, where, in the Pagosa Ranger District in 2010, the Forest Service closed high-risk allotments to grazing. Since then, the bighorn population has started to recover. “I find the (Pagosa) decision to be in stark contrast to what is proposed for the Weminuche,” Terry Meyers, the executive director of the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society, wrote to me in July. “It really tells the story about how political influence is perhaps influencing management decisions more than science.”

On a bright spring afternoon in May, I met Dan Parkinson at a riverside restaurant at Durango’s DoubleTree hotel. There, he spread a massive map of the Weminuche Wilderness across two round tables, giving the parlor the feel of a war room. Across the map streaked a thin blue line of masking tape, which traced the path of a 3-year-old ram, likely on a foray in search of a mate. The line showed a 22-mile northwestern jaunt into the heart of the wilderness, through dense forest and past alpine lakes, and eventually crossing Vallecito Creek, just north of the boundary of one of Brown’s allotments.

While searching for bighorn sheep on Endlich Mesa in the Weminuche Wilderness, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers volunteers Dave Croll and Dan Parkinson consult a map showing the route of a bighorn sheep that wandered through domestic sheep grazing allotments. Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

“J. Paul sits in meetings and claims he’s never seen a bighorn in his allotments,” Parkinson said, pulling apart his magnetic reading glasses and staring at me intensely. “But we know how far these guys can move.”

When a bighorn is exposed to M. ovi, it can spell the end, either from illness or at the hands of humans. In the summer of 2016, for example, a flurry of encounters led to the killing of numerous bighorn sheep in the San Juan Mountains. In the first incident, a 2-year-old bighorn ram wandered into a domestic sheep pen on private property in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, a few miles northwest of Durango and 18 miles from the Weminuche. A Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesman dismissed the incident as an anomaly. But later that summer, a second encounter occurred between bighorns and domestic sheep that belonged to the same rancher — Ernie Etchart, who is also the president of the Colorado Wool Growers Association. After a third incident, Colorado wildlife officers shot and killed a total of six bighorns — an increase from past years’ reports.

“We’ve been lucky for the past 30 to 40 years,” Parkinson said, before rolling up his maps and organizing his scattered documents into neat piles. “If that Weminuche population were decimated by a disease event, there wouldn’t be a single scientist that would be surprised. Something bad is going to happen.”

If the Weminuche bighorns succumb to M. ovi, or are killed for bumping into domestic sheep on public lands, critics argue it will be due to state wildlife managers’ inability to do their job. They point to the 2011 merger of the state’s Division of Wildlife with its Department of State Parks — one of the first acts of the incoming governor, John Hickenlooper, D. The measure was meant to save the state $4 million. It abolished 48 permanent positions between the two divisions, and created Colorado Parks and Wildlife, which kept the former era’s bighorn ram as its patch insignia. The new agency established a broad mandate with, according to its literature, “a more comprehensive outdoor recreation mission.” The result, according to multiple interviews with former and current officials, has been a shift in priorities that leaves wildlife preservation at the bottom rung.

“The interest of wildlife has certainly been diluted,” John Mumma, a former director of the Colorado Division of Wildlife, told me. “The mandate for protecting wildlife has faded and faded over the years, and the result is now a wildlife agency that has been seized by agricultural interests and is paralyzed from doing anything to protect wildlife.”

Indeed, agriculture and other business interests have direct influence on the agency, which is governed by the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission. Currently, there are more representatives on the commission with ties to agriculture, recreation and tourism than to conservation. Not a single wildlife biologist sits on it.

It is likewise clear that the wool industry holds sway over the agency. In 2014, Parks and Wildlife signed a memorandum of understanding with the Colorado Wool Growers Association. In it, the agency agreed “that closure of active domestic sheep allotments on public lands will not be recommended based solely on the potential for interaction between domestic and bighorn sheep.” Such memoranda are not unusual, where agencies seek to coordinate with stakeholders to reach compromises on plans. But for the Weminuche bighorns, it has meant that grazing continues unhindered as the conflicting factions wait for the Forest Service to reach a final management decision for the wilderness. Though bighorn sheep advocates participated in early negotiations, in the end, they felt like their conditions for bighorns were disregarded.

Instead, according to Meyers of the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society, the agreement ties the hands of Parks and Wildlife, preventing it from advocating for the proactive closure of allotments to prevent disease outbreaks. “The notion that the wildlife agency cannot advocate for control or containment of the primary issue that’s affecting the wildlife population is very concerning,” he said.

The current makeup and priorities of Colorado Parks and Wildlife mean that wildlife biologists and others in the agency are afraid to speak out. One current employee spoke to me on condition of anonymity, for fear of reprisal. “It’s impacted our ability to be vocal on the bighorn sheep issue,” the biologist said. “Domestic sheep carry a bacteria that causes pneumonia in wild sheep and that leads to decreases in survival, especially lamb survival, and really impacts wild sheep populations. There’s really no debate on that scientifically. Yet, as a agency, we’re very hesitant to actually come out and say anything that could portray a negative image of the agricultural industry.”

Outside influence in the agency has major implications, as the Forest Service creates its management plan. The Forest Service will follow closely the recommendations of a state agency like Parks and Wildlife, which has softened its language over the years where M. ovi is concerned.

In 2014, an initial environmental assessment of sheep grazing in the Weminuche included strong language on the impacts of the disease and high likelihood of contact, saying that the “existing condition is undesirable due to potential for contact between domestic sheep and bighorn sheep, leading to the possibility of disease transmission between the two species.” Based on the best available science, the agency should “consider the possibility of moving domestic sheep bands from currently active allotments where the risk of contact with bighorn sheep is high,” the initial assessment said.

As the assessment process went on, however, that option was thrown out, because low-risk, vacant allotments were less desirable for domestic sheep grazing. When the draft environmental impact statement was released in 2016, the preferred alternative summary recommended that allotments stay in production. It excluded warnings of the risk of disease transmission, and instead claimed that “adaptive management tools were crafted to work together to improve conditions where needed.”

The 2016 impact assessment also included a letter that was signed jointly by Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the state Department of Agriculture. The recommendation was that, despite the research and despite their close proximity to unique bighorn herds, the grazing allotments should stay in production. In its draft environmental impact statement, the Forest Service, which typically follows the lead of state agencies, echoed the letter nearly verbatim. Parkinson described the letter as “a schizophrenic piece that basically is like putting lipstick on the status quo.”

In other words, as the Weminuche management plan nears its completion, the Forest Service is not only ignoring science, but it is following the recommendations of a Parks and Wildlife Commission that is stacked with industry representatives. The Forest Service has not announced a date for the final decision, but Parkinson and other bighorn advocates fear the outcome will not reflect the needs of wildlife.

On a hot afternoon in June, J. Paul Brown and I toured the edge of his ranch in his Dodge Ram truck. “We have a friend in Don Brown,” the agricultural commissioner, he told me as we drove, dust sifting through a cab littered with fast food debris, an empty cough-drop bag and a warm two-liter bottle of Shasta. “Bob Broscheid has been very supportive.” We stopped beside a shady, tree-covered pasture, where hundreds of ewes and their week-old lambs grazed and nursed. Parkinson’s organization, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, he said, “are just another radical environmental group, in my opinion, and they want me gone. They say this isn’t personal against me — but it is personal, because it’s my survival.”

Brown is the sole permitee in the entire Weminuche Wilderness. If the Forest Service’s final decision allows his allotments to stay in production, it will be a testament to the stubbornness not only of Brown, but of Colorado’s agricultural politics in general, where powerful individuals with backing from a well-organized industry can bend wildlife management to their will.

Critics say the outcome does not bode well for the future of the agency, which has a specific and clear mandate for the preservation of wildlife: “to perpetuate the wildlife resources of the state” and “inspire current and future generations to serve as active stewards of Colorado’s natural resources.”

Right now, Colorado has approximately 6,000 bighorn sheep. It has an abundance of prime, high-alpine habitat and native range but is missing a wild population to match. The Forest Service will ultimately make a final decision over Weminuche grazing, but people like Parkinson feel that what really matters is that Colorado Parks and Wildlife — a public agency whose own insignia bears the proud head of a Rocky Mountain bighorn — has backed away from its responsibility. “(Parks and Wildlife) takes that responsibility very seriously,” Lauren Truitt, spokeswoman for Parks and Wildlife, wrote to me in August. “Our agency advocates for healthy and sustainable wildlife and habitats each and every day. We accomplish this by working with partners, including public land management agencies, private landowners and individuals, and numerous non-governmental organizations.”

I asked Brown what he made of the claim that Parks and Wildlife was buckling to pressure from the sheep industry. His lip twitched, and he paused. “Malarkey!” he almost shouted. “At least right now, with Bob Broscheid, they’re trying to do what’s right: They’re trying to protect bighorns, but they don’t want to take advantage of an industry that’s been there for years. It’s malarkey.”

Brown had turned the truck off, and we lingered in the overheating cab. “I have a grudge, you know,” he said at last. “I’ve just about shot my wad. I’m about done. I’m 66, and I can feel my age a little. This is about handing the reins to my children, my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren now.”

‘THE ACTUAL PURPOSE OF CPW’

The threat to bighorns is more than just M. ovi; it’s politics. The board that governs the state’s wildlife policies is appointed by the governor. And this year, two new candidates are locked in a race for leadership of the state.

“This governor’s race is so important,” Parkinson told me. “The makeup of the wildlife commission determines how wildlife is managed. We need to get someone in the governor’s office that understands how much the actual purpose of CPW has disappeared and will appoint biologists and people who understand these issues to the board.”

Where bighorn sheep conservation ranks with voters is anybody’s guess. The race is currently dominated by immigration, campaign finance and gun violence prevention, so wildlife management has not factored heavily into either of the gubernatorial candidates’ platforms this fall. (Neither campaign responded to HCN’s requests for comment.)

The Republican candidate, Walker Stapleton, is Colorado’s state treasurer. He won the state’s Republican primary in June, campaigning as “a proven conservative fighter.” His great-grandfather was once mayor of Denver (and a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan). If Stapleton wins, he would be Colorado’s second Republican governor in more than four decades.

The Democratic candidate, Jared Polis, is a five-term Boulder congressman, campaigning as a Coloradan and entrepreneur “turning bold ideas into real results.” If elected, he would be the nation’s first openly gay governor. Polis’ primary victory is a testament to the leverage campaign financing holds over the state’s electoral process: He spent $11 million of his own fortune leading up to the primary.

It is unclear whether the voters of Colorado know enough or care enough to vote for a governor who will reset the wildlife commission in a way that is more sympathetic to wildlife. Meanwhile, Dan Parkinson and J. Paul Brown continue their quiet feud in the mountains of southwestern Colorado — one man determined to save bighorns, the other equally determined to maintain his way of life.

And so it was that one day earlier this summer, Parkinson was driving a road near his home in Bayfield, Colorado, when he noticed domestic sheep manure along the side of the road. J. Paul must be moving his herds, he thought. Parkinson followed the droppings until he reached Lemon Dam. Soon, he’d spotted a band of domestic sheep, followed by Brown and one of his herders. They were moving their sheep onto summer pastures, about 17 miles from the starting point of the path of the roaming ram he’d charted in blue tape. It would take just one encounter for these sheep to wipe out some of the last of Colorado’s state animal. Parkinson watched, powerless, as the sheep moved along the edge of Lemon Reservoir, then disappeared into the wilderness.

Originally posted on High Country News by Paige Blankenbuehler on August 31, 2018. High Country News publishes independent journalism for people who care about the West.

This story was funded with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund.

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