BOISE, Idaho (AP) - The decision to phase out domestic sheep grazing on 70,000 acres of bighorn sheep habitat in the Payette National Forest cost Frank Shirts his best range.
And he's the lucky one. His brother, Ron Shirts, was forced to sell Frank his sheep and give up the business and lifestyle he's cherished all his life.
"Right now he's heartbroken," Frank Shirts said. "He hasn't been able to look at these sheep since I moved them down here."
Payette National Forest Supervisor Suzanne Rainville decided to end sheep grazing in areas where bighorn sheep have been dying from lung diseases carried by both domestic and wild sheep. The decision won her praise from the Wild Sheep Foundation, a hunters' group; but strong protests from the Idaho Woolgrowers Association and the Idaho Legislature.
What is a loss for one culture is a victory for another. The Nez Perce Tribe, which pushed the Forest Service to enforce separation between domestic and wild sheep, has long turned the bighorns' curved horns into bows and their tough-but-light hide into shirts - a tradition the tribe wants to keep alive.
"The archaeological record indicates that when the pharaohs were floating the Nile, my relations were eating roast bighorn sheep on the Salmon River," said Brooklyn Baptiste, the tribe's vice chairman.
The bighorn sheep population statewide is roughly half of what it was in the 1980s. And on the Salmon River above Riggins, the wild sheep declined by nearly 70 percent between 1986 and 2007.
Payette officials conducted an extensive analysis of the impacts of contact between bighorns and domestic sheep before Rainville made her decision.
A panel of scientists concluded that domestics pass the disease to bighorns in the wild, but the issue remains controversial - especially now that it means powerful ranching interests have to move. In addition to Ron Shirts of Weiser, Mick Carlson, a rancher near Riggins, also has been forced to sell his sheep and quit. The Soulen family, also of Weiser, will have to cut back its bands by nearly 40 percent if the decision holds.
Regional Forester Harv Forsgren upheld the decision in the face of nine separate appeals earlier this month. The Woolgrowers have asked Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell to review the decision. They are expected to sue if Tidwell allows the decision to stand.
The sheep industry worries that the analysis Rainville used for her decision will be used for all public land.
"We're in the greatest battle of the industry's life, and it's with our own government," said Stan Boyd, executive director of the Idaho Woolgrowers.
Had the ranchers been will