(CN) — The U.S. Forest Service handed wildlife advocates a win Thursday when it declined to make four grazing allotments in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California available for cattle.
The Humboldt-Toiyobe National Forest encompasses a significant swath of the Eastern Sierra, the steep escarpment straddling the California-Nevada border, and has been considering whether four large grazing allotments outside the town of Bridgeport, California, should be restored to cattle grazing as part of the the Bridgeport Southwest Rangeland Project.
The allotments, located in Mono County, were formerly dedicated to sheep but were retired after the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep was recognized as a distinct subspecies and put on the endangered species list in 2000.
While mountain lion predation and habitat loss also factored into the steep decline in bighorns, the biggest reason the population dropped below 100 in the 1970s is that domestic sheep carry a disease that is fatal to their wild counterparts.
Pasteurella is a common disease in domestic sheep and is not necessarily that virulent, but because wild sheep in the Sierra Nevada did not evolve to withstand the disease, its impact on them was deadly.
Domestic sheep have not been allowed in the Sierra Nevada for decades, but livestock advocates asked the Forest Service to consider converting four large grazing areas outside of Bridgeport and near the Virginia Lakes part of the Sierra Nevada to accommodate cattle, which do not pose the same disease threat as sheep.
The service recommended against converting the allotments but for finding a different use for them altogether.
“Our analysis indicated that authorizing cattle on these allotments would not be an effective use of the land in regard to other land management values,” said Acting Bridgeport District Ranger David Risley.
The move was celebrated by environmentalists who say that grazing imperils bighorn sheep and other endangered animals endemic to the Sierra Nevada.
“I am very pleased that the Forest Service made the best decision for sage grouse, bighorn sheep, and the many other rare species that call this Eastern Sierra landscape home,” said Laura Cunningham, California director at Western Watersheds Project. “The breathtaking scenery here deserves better than to be used for commercial livestock production.”
Aside from sage grouse and sheep, the Yosemite toad, the Sierra yellow-legged frog and a pika — a small mammal resembling a mouse — are other imperiled species that occupy the area.
“This is the right move by the Forest Service, it will allow habitat recovery to continue, protect rare riparian areas and cultural values,” said Lisa Belenky, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.
The four allotments would have needed some improvements to host cattle, which wildlife advocates said would have impinged on habitat for some of the endangered animals that call the area home. Specifically, three water developments would have had to be placed within one of the allotments to make it functional.
Cattle are more destructive to riparian habitats than sheep since they are heavier and consume more water from the streams and slopes that characterize the area.
Thursday’s decision was a draft environmental analysis and objections can be lodged with the forest service for the next 45 days.
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