WASHINGTON -- Saving the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep could cost at least $26.7 million over the next 20 years, a new federal study estimates.
Environmentalists and federal officials consider this a good investment in protecting a shaggy, endangered mammal that is found from Tuolumne to Tulare counties and across to the Sierra Nevada's remote east side.
"It looks like a fair amount of money," Bob Williams, Nevada field supervisor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said Tuesday, "but compared to other species, this is relatively small, and the costs are in line with what the species needs."
The public costs cover state and federal dollars directly spent on bighorn sheep monitoring and recovery. But they also include the potential sacrifice of fees that ranchers pay so their animals can graze on federal lands. To help the sheep, some such grazing would be restricted.
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Under pressure from a lawsuit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Fish and Wildlife Service is designating critical habitat -- land deemed essential for the survival and recovery of the bighorn sheep, whose population Williams pegs at about 300.
The 82-page economic study released Tuesday for public comment is part of the process.
Once the Fish and Wildlife Service designates the critical habitat, there will be another added cost for private property owners, ranchers and resort operators.
Federal officials have proposed designating 417,577 acres in Tuolumne, Fresno, Tulare, Inyo and Mono counties. This critical habitat would add "incremental" economic impacts totaling $135,000 over 20 years, the new economic analysis found.
"The actual costs are pretty small," Williams said.
For instance, economists estimate the private Tioga Pass Resort near the east entrance to Yosemite National Park would have to pay several hundred dollars for a number of critical habitat consultations with the Fish and Wildlife Service needed to ensure protection of the sheep.
"That's pretty minimal," noted Lisa Belenky, an attorney with the San Francisco office of the Center for Biological Diversity. "Some of the local people had the misimpression that [critical habitat] would require the closing of public lands."
Nearly all of the bighorn sheep's critical habitat is already owned by the Forest Service or National Park Service, and officials say private property owners shouldn't be much affected. Critical habitat primarily forces federal agencies to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service. The Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.