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Outdoors/Adventure

Permits for domestic goats and sheep? Still a divisive proposal as Board of Game meets.

  • Author: Zaz Hollander
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published November 9, 2017

Banning shooting bears in dens. Releasing feral cats into the wild.

Plenty of hot-button issues show up on the Alaska Board of Game's agenda for a weeklong meeting on state regulations that starts Friday in Anchorage after a work session Thursday.

But domestic goats and sheep are drumming up the most public comments as the board that sets Alaska's wildlife policy gears up for a statewide regulation-setting session.

The Board of Game will again weigh a proposal from the Alaska Wild Sheep Foundation to require a state permit to keep goats and sheep, a move Alaska's small-livestock producers say is biologically unnecessary and a threat to the state's fragile niche agriculture industry.

It may not get much traction: The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is recommending no board action. The proposal doesn't come with a guaranteed protection to wildlife and the board's authority is "limited to wild game and feral animals and does not include regulation of domestic animals."

Nonetheless, the foundation wants the restrictions to protect wild sheep from a bacteria known as "Movi" — short for Mycoplasma ovipneumonia — linked to deadly disease outbreaks among wild sheep in the Lower 48.

The measure would remove sheep and goats from the state's "Clean List" that designates animals — cats, dogs, African Pygmy hedgehogs — that can be owned or sold without permitting.

It would also require that goat and sheep owners living within 15 miles of designated Dall sheep habitat build secure fencing and certify their animals are disease-free through testing.

A Dall sheep ewe peeks over a rocky ridge in the vicinity of Windy Corner along Turnagain Arm. (Marc Lester / Alaska Dispatch News)

Farmers, however, say their small, scattered — and already fenced — flocks pose little risk but the proposal would essentially make it illegal to own sheep and goats.

Michelle Olsen, a Palmer sheep and goat farmer who specializes in fiber, was one of more than 350 people speaking out against the proposal in written comments received ahead of this week's meeting. There was only one in favor.

Olsen fences in her animals to protect them from dogs, moose and bears. She said Alaska already has strict regulations about importing animals, and the high cost prompts farmers to test any imports to make sure they're healthy.

"My livestock dogs live with my sheep, and they don't let anything come within sneezing distance of their sheep," Olsen wrote. "There is zero chance of a wild sheep getting in to (mix) with my domestics, which again, leads to zero risk of infection."

Since the March 2016 meeting where the board tabled a decision, there has been one significant change: more research.

An ongoing but still preliminary study has so far revealed an average of 4 percent of the roughly 375 Alaska goats and sheep tested positive for the Movi bacteria, according to Bob Gerlach, the state veterinarian. That's far lower than on large farms in other states.

Gerlach himself wrote a strongly worded letter opposing the proposal for several reasons, including the Board of Game's lack of authority over livestock.

The mass die-offs due to respiratory disease that have decimated wild sheep in the Lower 48 aren't known to have occurred in Alaska, he said.

The board considered a similar proposal just last year but tabled it to let the different sides come to an agreement.

They didn't.

A working group set up by the Wild Sheep Foundation and the Alaska Farm Bureau, with several state agencies consulting, didn't come up with a solution, according to foundation president Kevin Kehoe. He said the group has 500 to 600 members, most of them in Alaska.

But, Kehoe said, the group did discuss what the foundation views as an alternative proposal that would involve testing sheep and goats to make sure they were free of the bacteria and replacing ones that tested positive. He said the foundation would pay the cost of testing, which he said could cost half a million dollars.

If livestock producers team up with the foundation on the testing strategy, the only regulation would be on imported sheep, Kehoe said.

"We're looking for a Movi-free state," he said.

The group plans to introduce the testing-related language during the Board of Game meeting, he said.

The board is expected to deliberate on the topic next week.

Among other proposals up for consideration: several addressing the use of aircraft in sheep hunting; one asking the board to ban killing bears in dens and another asking to allow killing of black bear sows and cubs under certain conditions; and dueling proposals, one asking the board to allow the release of sterilized feral cats into the wild and another asking for a prohibition.

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