Sheep rules

Painted desert sheep lead to look at rules

BISMARCK, N.D. _ Autumn and Travis Bennett wanted a breed of sheep with horns that they wouldn’t have to shear and that would not require large amounts of government paperwork to keep. When they found the painted desert sheep breed, Autumn Bennett said, they liked the colors and thought they would be easy to bring to the state.

The Bennetts did not realize until after purchasing six spotted sheep from Montana that the animals are regulated in North Dakota.

“It was a mess,” Autumn Bennett said.

At the Bennetts’ request, the Non-traditional Livestock Advisory Council is revisiting how it regulates  sheep breeds not considered mainstream.

Painted desert sheep are among several breeds of sheep regulated because of their ancestral connection to wild horned Mouflon sheep. The fear is that painted desert sheep could escape captivity and interbreed or spread disease among the wild bighorn sheep population.

“They’re (Mouflons) escape artists,” said advisory council member Terry Lincoln, who directs the Dakota Zoo. “Anything you put them in they’re likely to get out.”

The Bennetts got the necessary permit and built the required 8-foot high fence to keep their six painted desert sheep. They plan to use the sheep for meat as well as for milk to make soap and cheese for their own use on their hobby farm in Walhalla, Autumn Bennett said.

They asked the council Tuesday, meeting at the Dakota Zoo in Bismarck, to change the rules governing desert sheep.

Autumn Bennett said she and her husband would like to be able to turn the sheep out to pasture but cannot do that because of fencing requirements. That means higher feed and supplement costs for the family.

Bennett and her husband are the only registered owners of painted sheep in the state. Deputy State Veterinarian Beth Carlson said that, like the Bennetts, there may be other painted sheep owners in western North Dakota and throughout the state who are not aware of the permitting requirement.

In other states, like Montana and Colorado, painted desert sheep are considered domestic animals rather than wildlife. The Bennetts say the sheep should be considered domestic in North Dakota as well.

Autumn Bennett argued Tuesday painted desert sheep do not fit the state’s definition of non-traditional livestock because they do not exist in the wild. Under state law, hybrids of wild sheep have been regulated for many years.

Autumn Bennett also is questioning the Mouflon bloodline as a reason for regulation, saying the Mouflon is a foundation breed for almost all breeds of domestic sheep.

Council member Jeb Williams with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department said the fear is that a non-native species will get out of captivity and out -compete a native species in the wild.

The council voted unanimously to form a subcommittee to gather information from breeders, breed registries and other state veterinarians about painted desert sheep and hybrids like it. The subcommittee will report its findings back to the council, which will make recommendations to the North Dakota Board of Animal Health.

One question the subcommittee was told to answer is how similar painted desert sheep and Mouflons are in behavior. That is meant to assess the sheep’s risk of escape from captivity.

“The ones that we have are completely docile,” Autumn Bennett said. “They’ve never tried to get out.”

Council member Shawn Schafer said painted desert herds he has seen in Texas have been penned in 4-foot fences like traditional domestic herds.

“You can definitely tell Mouflons from these,” he said. “I don’t understand why they’re so restricted.”

Possible solutions could include deciding on an appropriate amount of Mouflon that can be in a hybrid’s bloodlines before it must be registered, or requiring registry with the breed association to make sure the painted desert sheep allowed in the state will be docile.

Schafer and Williams both said they’re not sure the sheep should be considered completely domestic but are willing to consider relaxing the standards imposed on those who own them.