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Want to own a goat in Alaska? You might need a permit for that

A new proposal being considered by the Alaska Board of Game would require all goat and sheep owners to have a permit.

Currently sheep and goats fall under the state's "Clean List." Like cats, dogs and a variety of exotic animals including ferrets, one-humped camels and toucans, owning or selling those animals can be done without permitting.

But proposal 90 would change that for sheep and goats, raising big concerns among Alaska livestock owners.

The measure, introduced by the Alaska Wild Sheep Foundation, is intended to prevent diseases from being spread between wild and domestic sheep populations. Residents living within 15 air miles of designated sheep habitat would also have to build secure fencing and have their animals certified "disease free" through testing.

Similar proposals have been suggested across the Lower 48 and Canada, especially in places where disease has been associated with major wild sheep die-offs.

The proposal has the Alaska livestock community questioning whether such measures would be a financial burden on farmers and who would even have the authority to permit the animals. While the Game Board can remove or add animals to the Clean List, it has no authority to regulate domestic animals. The last animal to be removed was in 2010, when chimpanzees were taken off the list.

State veterinarian Bob Gerlach said there have been no recorded instances of disease being spread between wild and domestic sheep populations in Alaska.

While it's technically possible, Gerlach said it's very unlikely in Alaska. For one, domestic sheep and goat populations are very small, with only a few thousand in the state. Owners keep the medium-sized sheep and goats inside fenced areas already to protect them from bears, wolves and other predators -- they aren't free-grazing and mingling with wild populations.

"We already have that separation," Gerlach said. "The fact is the risk (for disease) is low."

But Kevin Kehoe, president of the Alaska Wild Sheep Foundation, said it only takes one sick animal to spread disease to wild populations, which have no immunity against certain pneumonia-like infections. He said there's less concern in Alaska about a domestic sheep encountering wild populations and more concern that wild sheep will venture out of their habitat and mingle with sheep already behind fences.

"If (disease) gets in, it's already too late," Kehoe said. "We will most certainly lose an entire mountain range of sheep before we can get it stopped. It's that devastating. This is all preemptive measures."

Farmers say the suggested measures are too onerous.

"It's an extreme approach to something we aren't having a problem with," said Amy Seitz, executive director of the Alaska Farm Bureau.

Dozens of livestock owners submitted written and oral comments in opposition to the Game Board proposal.

Wasilla farmer Jeff Judd and his wife own Summer Starr Farms, which has between 22 to 44 goats at any given time. He's a hunter too, and doesn't want to see an illness spread among wild populations. But he said the current proposal is too broad in scope.

"Making essentially everyone get a permit and everybody throughout the whole state having to get animals tested along with the expenses of doing that just seems like overkill and unnecessary," he said.

He said many farmers are willing to address some of the concerns about commingling without strict restrictions. Kehoe and others have welcomed that conversation. After outcry from the livestock community, Kehoe's recommended the Game Board table the measure for the next meeting, two years away.

The Alaska Wild Sheep Foundation -- a state branch of the national Wild Sheep Foundation -- started in late 2014. Kehoe said the reason the measure was introduced this year was because there's now an organization in Alaska that "takes wild sheep seriously."

In the meantime, his organization hopes to work with farmers to come up with solutions that don't require changes to state regulations.

"There's plenty of time to sit down and work through the issues," he said. "I don't think domestic folks want to see anything happen to wild sheep, either."

The board is expected to take action on the proposal Saturday.

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