SILENCING THE LAMBS
Woolly thinking on the California-Nevada border.
By Tim Findley
Fred Fulstone began moving his sheep up early into the high summer pasture. It was the second full week in June, nearly a month before he had planned, and it was not even in the same grazing allotment that was on his schedule.
Still, the lambs seemed ready and the grasses were surprisingly plentiful as they pushed the flock of a thousand ewes and more than a thousand lambs up to the higher ridges nearing snow line. It was a compromise, meant to bring another year’s progress in the long struggle of the Fulstones to survive the whims of government restriction.
Following the clang and clutch of the belled burro they recognize as their leader, the flock wakened from a late morning siesta midway down the slope and crossed the ridge by 2 p.m., the two-man team of Peruvian herders and their dogs whistling and nipping at their heels. It was cooler at the top, with a light breeze blowing down into an aspen-rimmed meadow.
Unless there might be an impossibly imagined encounter with bighorn sheep up ahead, Fulstone’s flock would feed again on the familiar rich grass and sage that has sustained his livestock for 70 summers and more in this same region. They moved slowly in the afternoon, feeding as they climbed steadily higher into the array of blossoming columbine and larkspur that mark the late Alpine spring. The bawls of the lambs and the deep baying responses from the ewes made it a noisy, self-centered passage, curling in light dust.
This was actually Bob Vaught’s solution to the problem. Only four days earlier, Vaught had summoned Fulstone and supporters into his conference room at the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest headquarters in Reno, Nevada. Chubby-cheeked, with an innocent look that makes him seem self-conscious of his authority, Vaught holds direct power over the largest national forest outside Alaska. It is a huge job made from small streams, long trails, and a bureaucratic chessboard that Fred Fulstone might not fully understand for its current political nuances.
The issue before them was the threatened cancellation of Fulstone’s grazing permit on the Dunderberg allotment high above Bridgeport, Calif., because of a possible conflict with an “endangered” species of bighorn sheep in the general region. Vaught sat lost amid the crowd, in a chair a third of the way down the long conference table, relinquishing the head seat to an attorney for Fulstone himself. On the blackboard Vaught had scrawled two divisions to his agenda: one the problem, and the other a possible solution. Neither was quite as honest as it could be.
Some federalcrats are known for their infuriating newspeak of acronyms, and while Vaught is not one of them, the issue had been defined for him by Robert Williams in the Nevada office of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. It was Williams’ coinage that the bighorns in question are “SNBS” (Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep), supposedly an endangered species apart from just your average bighorns of the Rockies and elsewhere.
“Foreyt and Jessup  published experimental work confirming that bacterial pneumonia [pasteurella] carried normally by domestic sheep can be fatal to bighorn sheep,” Williams wrote. “Thus, domestic sheep grazing on the JBU may affect SNBS if the two species come nose-to-nose with each other.” He worried that a possible “die-off” among bighorns, any die-off, might mark a disastrous violation of the Endangered Species Act. The permit holder could face huge fines and even a prison sentence, and, Williams’ letter hinted, the Forest Service could share the blame for allowing domestic sheep on the allotment.
Even on a slightly altered route, the vague accounting of the Fish & Wildlife Service unsupported by photos or any other evidence suggested that the bighorns might be almost anywhere in the vast ranges of the eastern Sierra. Somewhere ahead of them, an SNBS might be in nose range, but herder Julio Gorriz wasn’t thinking about that as he whipped a dry snap of sage at the stragglers and shouted to his dog Marquesa. She was quickly behind them, urging them on.
“I never seen one,” said Julio, proud of his moderate grasp of English. “Not one. No bones, no horns, no track. Nothing.”
Gorriz is native Basque, but his two decades of herding in this region has earned him resident status. The evidence of his dwindling heritage can be found in almost any grove of aspen trees in this region where lonely Basque herders have carved their names, their dreams and the dates going back a century in a soft-bark record.
“Never a bighorn. I never see one,” Gorriz said again.
Nevertheless, since Fish & Wildlife began its program in 1986 to “reintroduce” bighorn into ranges of Northern California and Nevada where they had not been known before, the animals, numbering 100 or less, have gradually acquired special status to the point of acronym—SNBS. They have become political cousins to CSO (California spotted owl).
In a letter from the regional manager, California Department of Fish and Game to Inyo National Forest Supervisor Eugene Murphy, August 1984, on the matter of reintroduction of bighorn sheep into Lee Vining Canyon:
“We do not believe that habitats south of Lee Vining Canyon, particularly the Bloody Canyon allotment, are suitable for bighorn sheep. Should any number of bighorn sheep…emigrate to an active domestic sheep allotment they will be considered a ‘failure segment’ of the overall reintroduction element. The department will not request any additional reduction or cancellation of allotments based on the presence of these animals.”
Letter to Fred Fulstone, F.I.M. Corp., from Mono Lake District Ranger Bill Bramlette, U.S. Forest Service, 1989:
"To restate, the bighorn sheep that established in Bloody Canyon area will not be used by the Forest Service, or apparently the California Department of Fish and Game to eliminate any domestic sheep grazing in your Bloody Canyon allotment.”
Yet in 2000, not long after Bloody Canyon was integrated into the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, Fulstone was informed that his grazing allotment there was canceled due to possible interaction of domestic sheep with the bighorns, or SNBS.
It would cost Fulstone a huge amount of money in loss of production and the acquisition of new grazing areas. Fulstone and his herders had been in and out of Bloody Canyon for half a century. They had never seen any sign of bighorn sheep, and there still is no evidence that the bighorn have ever been there. Yet, as even Fish & Wildlife’s own scientists had predicted, SNBS had not adapted well to ranges south of Lee Vining. Their numbers were falling due to predators, heavy winters in the high ranges, and, as in the useful if largely unsupported supposition, interaction with domestic animals.
Bob Vaught really had nothing to do with that. He won the job in Humboldt-Toiyabe close behind the high-boot heels of Gloria Flora, whose career with the Forest Service crashed in 1999 with accusations of “threats” against her employees over the road closure she ordered at Jarbidge to protect the bull trout—another dubiously endangered species. Flora complained to Congress and crowds of eagerly listening environmentalists that property rights radicals were waging a terror campaign against her.
Good-natured Bob Vaught still had final peace to make with the grassroots wave of the “Shovel Brigade” that reopened the road anyway, but the new superintendent at least did not adopt the adversarial stance of Flora.
In fact, it never really was an issue with the Forest Service. Flora’s decision on the road was based on pressure put on her by the Interior Department’s Fish & Wildlife Service, which claimed, but never proved, the existence of bull trout in the area of South Canyon. When then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt heard of what Flora called threats, he made a personal phone call to check—not to Flora, but to Bob Williams of Fish & Wildlife.
Now, what Vaught had before him at his mid-table seat was the message from the enduring Williams warning that SNBS had been seen—yet still not photographed—where they were not expected, in Fulstone’s Dunderberg grazing range.
“Nose-to-nose,” Williams warned, the bighorn might just catch something from the domestic sheep. He suggested that if the Forest Service, a division of the Department of Agriculture, wanted to allow Fulstone on the allotment this year, he and his own rangers might be held liable along with Fulstone for any subsequent die-off. The law of the land, Vaught was reminded, is the Endangered Species Act, and Fish & Wildlife, a division of the Department of Interior, is responsible for administration of the law.
For Fulstone, still trying to recover from the loss of one major allotment in Bloody Canyon, the cancellation of another permit could mean economic disaster.
“This is preposterous,” erupted David Thawley, the Dean of the College of Agriculture at the University of Nevada, who was one of Fulstone’s invited guests at the meeting. “They [the bighorns] could be hit by a meteor, and it would be blamed on domestic sheep. Once again, policy is being determined by bad science.”
Williams’ fearsomely portrayed “pastuerella” disease is actually a common infection known to be carried by most, if not all mammals, including bighorn sheep. It is much like a mild cold in most cases, says Dr. Anette Rink, another of Fulstone’s invited guests who happens to be the director of the veterinary laboratory for the State of Nevada. So common, in fact, adds Dr. Hudson Glimp of University of Nevada, Reno’s School of Veterinary Medicine, that it’s known as shipping fever, found frequently among animals closely packed for transport.
“This whole thing really right now sounds a bit bogus to me,” says Rink, whose own studies have shown that cursory field examinations finding pastuerella among dead animals simply do not go far enough to determine the true cause of death.
In any case, the die-off of bighorns from contact with domestic sheep is based on virtually no evidence at all, the scientists agree, but rather anecdotal beliefs.
“We’re talking about the best technology available in 1980?” says Thawley. “No DNA analysis, no peer review? Where is the science in this?”
“Yes,” Vaught replies at last in his practiced patient tone, “but what if it is true? What if it might really happen? Then what?”
The eminent state agricultural scientists stare back at Vaught like he is someone who has watched too many drive-in movies.
Even within scent of the small stream flowing through the meadow below them, the sheep are in no hurry. The burro has wandered a little away from the road he had been following, taking them with him, and they feed gradually on the fresh green shoots from the sage, some of them lying down to rest again in the warm afternoon.
The Fulstone family first established their ranch in Nevada’s Smith Valley in 1858. It is in a little-visited deep bowl of the eastern Sierra not far as the crow flies from the spectacular canyons of Yosemite. Fred, now 84, began every day before dawn from the time he was 13 with his chores of milking the cows. His father was a prominent founder of Smith Valley and his mother a pioneering rural physician. It was at her urging that Fred left the ranch at 17 to begin studies in medicine at the University of California at Berkeley. Sadly, his father fell ill a short time later and Fred returned to the ranch after only two years in college. He would never again leave, but instead began building on the firm livestock business his father had established.
“We have at least 70 years of experience in grazing on those allotments,” he says. “There was a time I remember when the government actually appreciated that. What we were doing made the range better, not worse. It helped in fire prevention and even encouraged new growth. They used to understand that, and when they needed food, during the war, they used to tell us, ‘run all the sheep you can.’ We wouldn’t do that; we wouldn’t overgraze our own best resource.” It was up to a million acres in the mountain pastures, and no one knew them better than Fulstone.
But Fred first began seeing the big hand of new government in the late 1970s when the Endangered Species Act took hold. It was then that Fish & Wildlife began reintroducing Lahontan cutthroat trout (LCT in federalese) to small high streams where they were not known and had little chance of survival. At least not, the young Fish & Wildlife specialists claimed, unless grazing along the narrow streams could be curtailed or eliminated.
George Frampton, the former head of the Wilderness Society credited with giving that environmental group its best years of growth, was by the early 1990s an advisor to President Bill Clinton and assistant secretary in the Department of Interior, in charge of Fish & Wildlife.
Frampton presented no real surprises in directing his department, with the muscle of the Endangered Species Act behind them, to establish wilderness wherever human use could be pushed out. He was experienced as one of the planners to use the spotted owl as a means of halting logging. In his portfolio as head of Fish & Wildlife, he had an almost limitless supply of similar surrogates to employ when useful. Like the bull trout in Jarbidge. Like the Lahontan cutthroat they planted above Fulstone’s summer pastures.
“A group of industries, principally mining, logging and ranching for decades have enjoyed federal subsidies to develop and exploit federal lands,” Frampton told an Earth Day rally in 1992. “We’re going to help the environment…and they’re fighting back. If you had a license to loot the federal treasury, you’d be fighting to keep it too.”
Fulstone tried to go along with the new wave of idealistic federal bureaucrats. He took them to the streams where his sheep grazed, showed them the strong grass and clear water. They measured the grass in centimeters and proclaimed it too short. They looked at the full-flowing stream and said the sheep would drink it dry unless they were limited to 10 percent use, no more than four days a week.
An independent range biologist invited along as an observer later reported, “The young and inexperienced ‘ologists’ stuck to their guns that the site was devastated and needed total rest from grazing, even though ALL the indicators were to the contrary.” More of Fulstone’s former grazing rights were canceled, and, incredibly, in one stipulation he was directed to allow his sheep to drink from only one side of a two-foot-wide stream, reserving the other side for a neighboring permittee and his sheep.
If it was not the cutthroat, it was the woefully endangered red-legged frog that he dared not disturb under threat of prison.
Fred has his own established reputation in Nevada and eastern California. He is a highly respected rancher, and nobody’s fool, but he was patient enough to watch all the pieces piling up before he dared think it was a conspiracy to put him out of business.
The rumored presence of an invented species in places everyone knows they don’t belong and probably won’t survive seemed convincing indicators of what was really afoot to state livestock experts. SNBS, and their risk of extinction from common sheep, sounded more like joke than even junk science.
“We all know there are some, even in government, who want to force all grazing off federal lands,” one of them said.
That wasn’t Vaught, either. After all, as he told the meeting in his conference room, “It’s Fish and Game [in California] that is encouraging the Forest Service to cancel Fred’s permit [on the Dunderberg allotment].” Actually, as Vaught knows, it was not California Fish and Game. They were just passing on the pressure put on them by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
“We want to work with you, Fred, and make sure you have your grazing rights, but there are some bureaucrats who would rather not take the risk,” Vaught admitted.
It was from there that the clever-sized forest superintendent provided a new little twist of his own in the chess match of interagency power. He knew that Fulstone had little other choice than to sue for his rights and use all the scientific evidence already piling up against the bad science and outright duplicity of Fish & Wildlife in the matter. But the time and cost of that could still cripple Fulstone’s operation, which he shares with his daughter Marianne Leinassar and plans soon to turn over to his grandson, Chris.
It was as Vaught got up from the center of the table and went to his blackboard to begin “point two” on his agenda that the obvious absence of any Fish & Wildlife representatives at the meeting was revealed as quite intentional.
“What if you keep the Dunderberg permit, but let it rest a year, and we offer you another allotment beginning a little earlier this summer?” Vaught suggested.
He wasn’t just placating the surprised Fulstone. Vaught made it clear that he intended, with Fulstone’s agreement, to present the nearby Cameron allotment agreement to Fish & Wildlife the following Monday, without their approval or review. “We’re ready to just go in there and tell them,” Vaught said.
“And what if there are bighorns up there?” someone asked. “What if there is a die-off?”
“Then I guess one of my rangers goes to jail,” said the deceptively young-looking Vaught. The two young lady rangers in the meeting smiled willingly along with their boss.
Yet even then, it could not be an easy way around the bureaucratic barriers. The pasture Vaught offered near the U.S. Marine winter training base seemed welcoming until Fulstone went to look at it and was presented with a new map drawing red lines around the stream sources of water where Fish & Wildlife claims to have planted lahontan cutthroat trout (LCT). Where would Fulstone’s sheep drink?
The forest superintendent and his staff went back to look for more open allotments, promising Fulstone they would find him summer range. They went over their own maps of the huge Humboldt-Toiyabe forest like it was a chessboard on which they searched for their next move.
In the meantime, Dr. Rink will continue and probably complete her work to establish whether the SNBS really is a distinct and endangered species, which she doubts, and other researchers will continue to question the science behind the wives’-tale wisdom that encounters of wild and domestic sheep always prove fatal.
In Washington, the figurehead undersecretary of Fish & Wildlife who replaced George Frampton is Craig Manson, an African American former judge in California, who is known for saying, “The Endangered Species Act is definitely broken and needs fixing.”
Times, it seems, could be changing in another direction. Unless, that is, that men like Bruce Babbitt and George Frampton get their way again. Since leaving office, they have teamed up with other former Clinton appointees to form “Environment 2004,” a political action group with the stated purpose of building a case against President George Bush for his failure to press on with environmental reform.
It is not likely that Francisco Figueroa had any idea of all the politics he was pushing up the hills in June. Gorriz will leave him and the sheep alone up there for weeks at a time. He has a supply of food, his dogs, and a 30-30 in case the lions get too close. He does not understand English, and it was not explained to him what he should do if he encounters a bighorn, or, worse, an almost mythical SNBS. But Gorriz and Fulstone are convinced there is no chance of that, despite the unsupported worries of Fish & Wildlife.
The flock stops on the sage hilltop. They are high enough now to see the pale and blackened mountain slopes on the distant horizon, still unsalvaged of its dark skeletons of trees. It was there, two years ago, that Fish & Wildlife rejected military assistance to drop retardant on what began as a controllable blaze. Marines were told the chemical might affect the “LCT” in the streams.
Despite the herders’ objections, a photographer pushes ahead of the flock, hoping for a shot of the sheep passing the old carvings on the aspen. Tromping past them down the road, the cameraman turns a corner and looks into the trees, surprised just in time to see the big animal’s head.
Tim Findley will return to the woods when the bears have been cleared.
A pawn in the game.
The desert bighorn sheep became Nevada’s official state animal in 1973. A subspecies of the Rocky Mountain bighorn, the desert bighorn ranges widely across the state, especially in high mountain grass and sage lands usually below 5,000 feet. The object of an ambitious campaign of reintroduction from other sites over the last 50 years, the desert bighorn is not endangered. Nevada promotes a carefully restricted hunting season on them each year.
In 1986, despite evidence that higher ranges of the Sierra were unsuitable for the bighorns because of steep, rocky terrain and harsher winters, federal authorities released a new herd into the Mono Basin from a population further to the south in what is better known as bighorn habitat.
This new group of 100 sheep was designated as the Sierra Nevada bighorn and, without any DNA or other scientific evidence, proclaimed to be a “unique form…rarer than the Florida panther and rarer than the California condor.” Other scientists question the federal claim and the subsequent designation of the Sierra Nevada bighorn as endangered.
At the beginning of 2004, several deaths among desert bighorns in northern Nevada near Winnemucca prompted concern that a die-off was underway. Preliminary reports contended that the bighorns may have become infected with a lung disease from contact with domestic sheep. State agricultural veterinarian Annette Rink conducted a closer examination, however, and concluded that the dead sheep carried parasites common to bighorns and also suffered from mineral deficiencies that weakened their immune system. She found no indication that their health was impaired by contact with domestic sheep.
If the object really is to force Fred Fulstone off his long-standing grazing permits and out of business in the Smith Valley, it will accumulate into what is already a multimillion dollar loss of agricultural income in rural Nevada due to federal grazing restrictions.
Since the introduction of so-called Sierra Nevada bighorns into areas around Mono Lake, grazing restrictions have already resulted in the reduction of domestic sheep in the region by some 20,000 animals. Research analyst Thomas R. MacDiarmid of the University of Nevada estimates that the loss in rural activity from a reduction in grazing amounts to an impact of about $520 for every AUM (animal unit month) lost. Fulstone has 18 employees, most of whom have been with him for years. He is proud of his 40 guard- and herd dogs. He also has 4,000 AUMs.
the loss of
at least $2
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