The latest battle for the soul of the West is really an ongoing set of skirmishes, pitting grizzly bears, mountain lions and bighorn sheep against a rancher and his livestock.
Stuck in the middle are the federal and state government agencies charged with protecting public lands, native animal species — and also private-property rights.
Grizzlies, catamounts and bighorns, the very symbols of the untamed Western wilderness, were once decimated by overhunting and habitat loss — but now are returning across important parts of their former ranges.
This puts them in direct conflict with rancher Frank Robbins, who’s been a thorn in the side of the government for decades.
It all started with a dispute with the federal Bureau of Land Management that escalated all the way to the Supreme Court in the 2000s.
An Alabama transplant, Robbins and the BLM battled it out over access to public and private land, and where his cattle could graze.
He lost the case — and also lost some of his cattle-range leases — and then turned to sheep farming.
As it turns out, the biggest threat to the rebounding bighorn population that roams the Absaroka Mts and other ranges in Robbins’ rangelands is pathogens spread by contact with domestic sheep.
Specifically, bighorns are threatened by a type of bacterial pneumonia that their domestic cousins carry.
This has led to the unenviable task faced by Wyoming Game and Fish employees — hunt down “renegade” bighorns that are getting too close to Robbins’ domestics, and kill them to save the wild herds.
So far no bighorns have been killed, but the order stands.
The problem is symbolic of the ongoing struggle between as ranchers, in a modern-day “Sagebrush Rebellion,” continue to push their herds farther into the high country wilderness.
This puts the domestic sheep in direct conflict with expanding populations of wild animals and predators that are expanding their own ranges down out of the high country.
When apex predators such as grizzlies and mountain lions do take livestock, ranchers are entitled to recompense from the state government.
Robbins, with his 110,000-acre operation encompassing both private and public range leases, has claimed over $400,000 in losses for 2018 — over 100 sheep as well as 400 calves and a couple steers.
The state offered to pay just under $90,000, so the rancher appealed to the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission.
Robbins and his ranch manager say that the proliferation of bears in particular is a major risk not just to animals, but also human beings.
“Somebody’s going to get killed … we had bears killing bears … it’s bears everywhere,” Robbins’s manager complained to the commissioners.
Indeed, scores of bears now roam the area, and a recent plan to allow hunting failed.
This didn’t hinder Robbins and his staff, who said that by killing a grizzly — they claim that they thought it was a black bear — ended up saving the federal government $100,000 in recompense fees.
While the government tries to figure out a way to make both predators and ranchers happy, Robbins’ operations continue to expand the numbers of domestic sheep they pasture in the high country.