Colorado’s economy depends on elk hunting and agriculture to play large roles, and throughout the years, the two juggernauts have co-existed on Routt National Forest. Forest managers allow for public land use by both groups, which is part of Forest Service multi-use policy.
Recently, however, increasing comments from elk hunters has spotlighted friction between the two groups in August and September. Specifically, archery and muzzleloader hunters have expressed concerns about the presence of sheep herds in areas where they camp and hunt.
According to Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife, the popularity of primitive hunting has increased, bringing the long-standing interactions between hunters in the forest during the early months of elk season and herds of sheep, also using the forest at that time, to the forefront.
Although the majority of elk hunters are aware of grazing on the national forest, some are surprised to encounter the sheep. And while the overall situation is a complex one, with many individual scenarios and theories, just knowing some basic information might help all involved understand the presence of flocks on the forest.
The Routt National Forest supports a large public grazing program, and portions of the Hahn’s Peak/Bears Ears and Yampa ranger districts are particularly suitable for sheep grazing.
Any grazing of livestock on the Routt National Forest is managed to provide benefit to the land. Properly managed, livestock grazing stimulates growth of desirable plant species and achieves a vegetation mix across the landscape. Livestock grazing also is a tool to control non-native noxious weeds and other undesirable vegetation species. Ultimately, sheep grazing enhances habitat areas for elk, deer and other wildlife species in the long term.
Livestock use has been authorized under grazing permits on the Routt National Forest since 1906. The Forest Service conducts extensive analysis to determine the number of livestock allowed on the forest to achieve the desirable condition for the rangelands.
Sheep generally graze on forest for about a three-month period, having to be off by Oct. 1. During that time, management by ranchers is intensive, requiring daily movement to obtain good distribution of sheep across the allotment, and this management usually involves the use of herding and livestock protection dogs. Allotments range from a few thousand to almost 25,000 acres, averaging about 8,000 acres in size. Livestock grazing also is an allowable use within wilderness areas and has occurred in these areas since the late 1800s — long before wilderness proclamations.
Ranchers pay fees based on “head months,” which is a single sheep, or a ewe and her lamb, grazing on the forest for one month. This fee fluctuates based on factors such as market rates and production costs. Grazing fees are often debated in Congress, and they are not set by the Forest Service.
The same ranches that graze on the forest during the late summer and early fall often provide crucial winter range for wildlife, such as elk, later in the year.
Based on feedback from hunters, the Forest Service and the Division of Parks and Wildlife now will post information on their respective websites and make information available before hunting license application periods regarding the location of livestock in relation to Game Management Units. This solution will give hunters the option of hunting a different area, should they not want to experience livestock in the vicinity.
The bottom line is that all users of the national forest should expect interaction with other groups, so no matter what your activity, always consider the multiple-use nature of your national forest.
Aaron Voos is a public affairs specialist for the Routt National Forest.