Proposal to permit goats, sheep delayed 2 years

A controversial proposal to require owners of domestic sheep and goats in Alaska to permit their animals has been pushed back for two years.

Proposal 90, one of the more than 100 proposals submitted to the Board of Game for its biennial statewide review of game management policies, would remove domestic sheep and goats from the “clean list” and require owners to obtain permits for each animal. It would also set more requirements for fencing and disease screening.

The proposal, submitted by the Alaska chapter of the Wild Sheep Foundation, sought to protect wild sheep and goats from contracting diseases carried by their domestic counterparts. Transmission of diseases has caused crashes in wild sheep and goat populations in the Lower 48 in the past. Though there have been no outbreaks of pneumonia, the disease of the most concern, in Alaska’s wild sheep and goat populations, it would be better to get out ahead of the problem before an outbreak occurs, according to the proposal.

The Board of Game heard the proposal at its March 24 meeting in Fairbanks and, after many public comments and a short deliberation, decided to postpone any decision on it for two years so the interest groups could work out a solution between themselves. Board chairman Ted Spraker said at the meeting that the spread of disease was a legitimate concern and Alaska has been fortunate so far. Throughout the public testimony, he said he has heard willingness from the two parties — the Alaska agricultural industry and the Alaska Wild Sheep Federation — to try to come up with a solution.

“I think there’s a willingness for these folks to get together and work out a system,” Spraker said at the meeting.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game recommended the board take no action because the Board of Game does not have authority over domestic animals, only over wild game. Bruce Dale, the director of Fish and Game’s Division of Wildlife Conservation, said the department will facilitate conversations between the groups as well as continue its research and screening.

“The department has long been concerned about the health of wild sheep, given the situations in the Lower 48,” Dale said at the meeting. “We realize it’s a much different situation here, the urgency has not been there, but we have begun screening.”

The game board was flooded with comments opposing Proposal 90, most from members of the agricultural community in the Mat-Su Valley and on the Kenai Peninsula. Most opposed the proposal because they felt it would infringe on the rights of animal owners and because Alaska relies so heavily on imported foods, so limiting any agricultural activity would only make the state more reliant on imports. Others opposed the proposition because they say the science behind the proposal is faulty.

The Wild Sheep Foundation submitted a position paper saying that multiple scientific papers have shown wild sheep to be susceptible to diseases carried by domestic sheep and goats, particularly an agent that causes pneumonia.

The Bighorn Sheep Disease Research Consortium, which has been studying the disease in bighorn sheep in the Lower 48 since 2009, writes that the link between domestic sheep and bighorn sheep pneumonia is well known.

Several commenters took issue with that claim, saying the infectious agent is already present in the wild sheep, but the disease comes out when their immune systems are suppressed. There have been other studies that have shown contact alone is not enough for a wild sheep to become diseased, wrote Alaska Farm Bureau Executive Director Amy Seitz in a comment to the Board of Game.

Seitz said the Alaska Farm Bureau started the communication with the Alaska Wild Sheep Foundation, but that the agriculture community was taken by surprise when the proposal was put in. She said the delay is workable and that the appropriate agencies and parties will work together.

“(The proposal) is now going through the steps that it should have gone through in the beginning,” Seitz said. “Hopefully we’ll come up with a plan that’s different than Prop 90.”

Kevin Kehoe, president of the Alaska chapter of the Wild Sheep Foundation, could not be reached for comment. In the Wild Sheep Foundation’s comments to the Board of Game, he wrote that the proposal was not intended to target sheep and goat keepers.

“This is a traditional occupation and pastime done by fine people with no intended malice,” Kehoe wrote. “We are, however, also strong advocates of science-based wildlife management in general, and for Dall’s sheep in particular.”

Dianna Taplin, the owner of Cad-re Feeds in Soldotna, said she did not know about the proposal until someone informed her and she approached the Fish and Game Advisory Committee in the central Kennai Peninsula to ask them to oppose the proposal. She said limiting ownership could inhibit independent food production, and wild sheep do not come in contact with domestic sheep and goats in Alaska in the first place because of the remoteness of their habitats and guard dogs that chase them out of pastures.

Taplin said the delay will give the proponents time to organize their case as well and that the money behind the hunting industry gives it an edge over the agriculture industry.

Taplin said she is concerned because other western states have taken similar measures to keep domestic sheep and goats separated from their wild counterparts, impacting private ownership.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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