Bighorn sheep are dying off near Grand Forks, most likely due to an outbreak of the so-called “bluetongue” virus. While the full extent of the die-off remains unclear, a broad consensus has it that the local herd, re-introduced in the mid-1980s, will be hit hard.
While scientists understand the complexity of the virus, the story of the herd is considered controversial.
It starts, somewhat arbitrarily, with a bold proposition: “Gentlemen, we have a golden opportunity to introduce a California bighorn sheep herd to Grand Forks.”
Enter Barry Brandow, Sr., who penned those words in a letter sometime after the spring of 1983. It’s not clear who the letter was addressed to, but an attached list of names, all local ranchers, suggests a wide audience was willing to consider what he had to say. Two bighorns, a ram and a ewe, had recently been spotted roughly 20 kilometres up the Granby River — wouldn’t tourists, especially hunters, love it if a herd were transplanted somewhere nearby?
Brandow was then a local outfitter but if his company, Granby Guides & Outfitters, was in a position to benefit from an annual bighorn hunt, his proposal promised both more game for hunters and more pasture land for cattle. There’s also a wealth of primary evidence (letters, position papers and newspaper reports) to bolster his reputation as a lifelong and very genuine conservationist.
He also has a reputation, equally well deserved, for being outspoken in his beliefs.
“Anytime you do anything for wildlife, it’s a helluva fight,” he told The Gazette Wednesday, Sept. 1. Standing on a bluff high up the Gilpin grasslands, he sounded frustrated and hurt. Thirty bighorns had been found dead in the area the week before, and he expected things to get worse before they got better.
“It was one of the finest sheep transplants on the continent and now we’re back to scratch,” he said, remembering the struggle to get the animals there in March 1985.
The bid to transplant bighorns from a herd north of Oliver was quickly endorsed by Grand Forks’ Chamber of Commerce (GFCC), Bob Lincoln and Al Peatt, then regional wildlife biologists with the provincial environment ministry and Ian Robertson, the ministry’s regional wildlife manager. Brandow also credits the support local MLA Jim Hewitt, whose Social Credit Party was “partial to my wife, Midge,” then Tourism Chairperson at the GFCC and a board director at the BC Chamber of Commerce.
Judging by her contemporary letters, Midge was every bit as passionate as her husband. The GFCC in an August 1984 proposal backing the transplant was sharply critical of “the small per cent of the population who will oppose this project,” by which they mean those “directly related to the agriculture community, most of whom are ranchers.” Replying that fall to a disapproving letter by a spokesperson for the BC Institute of Agrologists, Midge defended the Chamber’s position.
“Suggestions in your letter that the comments made about the local cattle industry were negative and served no purpose are naive. The comments were politically expedient and will go a long way to harness public anger and annoyance directed at the cattlemen; unfortunate but necessary!” she wrote.
Expedient or not, her letter details a November 1983 meeting where concerned cattlemen raised a salient point that would come to haunt area bighorns. “No objection was given (by cattlemen) expect some gibberish about blue tongue,” she wrote.
The Chamber’s stance meanwhile irked Gordy Nichols, land manager at Grand Forks’ forest ministry office. In a Gazette article published a week after the Chamber’s endorsement, Nichols is paraphrased as saying, “the tone of the proposal has delayed the possibility of the sheep translocation” to the Overton Moody ranch, east of Grand Forks.
The article then quotes him as saying, “I’m interested in the multiple uses of the area for whatever we can get out of it … but I have no time for people that go around hacking at other people.”
The Grand Forks Stock Breeders Association had already held up the process, insisting that bighorns wouldn’t survive Boundary winters and calling for ‘on-site’ inspections” at proposed translocation sites. This objection didn’t land, as evidenced by an article submitted to the Gazette shortly after the inspections were due to wrap up. According to local archaeologist Michael Freisinger, a colleague’s study showed remains of Kettle River bighorns dating back 10,000 years. The animals had been over hunted by European settlers, according to a peer-reviewed article published in a 1928 issue of the Journal of Mammology.
The project went ahead, thanks to Hewitt, who suggested a wildlife fence along Highway 3 between Grand Forks and Christina Lake, and Brandow and his friend Wayne Rieberger, who stuck to their commitment to build it.
Brandow still remembers a February 1985 meeting where Nichols, still opposed to the bighorns’ reintroduction, finally gave up the ghost. After a perfunctory session, Ace Elkink of the BC Cattlemen’s Association asked someone in room, “Are they coming?”
The man hesitated, not wanting to give away that the sheep were headed to Grand Forks.
“They’re coming!” Nichols grunted.
“Even though the ranchers don’t want them,” Elkink replied, realizing the fight was over.
“The point is, it was a war,” Brandow told The Gazette. “They were of the opinion that agriculture — both growers and ranchers — that they would make the final decision on what was clearly a wildlife issue.”
The herd is estimated to have grown to perhaps 150 – 200 sheep since its arrival in 1985, according to Peter Grutsche, director at the Wild Sheep Society of BC.
By his own admission, Brandow has his “share of critics.” He maintains local cattlemen had opposed the reintroduction of bighorn sheep for fear that setting aside land for wildlife would set an unwelcome precedent against the industry’s interests.
Speaking for the BC Cattlemen’s Association on Thursday, Sept. 2, General Manager Kevin Boon gave no indication he or the association would fight another reintroduction should bluetongue bring down the herd.
“We have had reintroduction of herds, especially in the Southern Interior. I don’t think it’s a matter that we would necessarily oppose,” he said, qualifying, “It’s a matter of making sure that, when they’re reintroduced, they’re managed well.”
“The biggest issue (for ranchers) is the transmission of diseases. There are certain diseases that can be extremely harmful and detrimental not just to cattle in our area, but all across the province.”
The association isn’t especially concerned about bluetongue. Boon said that, while he understood the virus is prevalent on both sides of the Canada-U.S border and that it can jump from wildlife to livestock, it’s rarely fatal in cattle.
“There are conflicts between ranchers and conservationists — there’s no two ways about it,” he granted. “But most are probably misunderstood. On Crown land, and 95 per cent of B.C. is Crown land when we range our cattle on there, it’s mandated that we leave at least half of that grass. There is always forage available because our guys always leave it there,” he said.
More than anything, Boon said he wanted to see better wildlife management from the province.
Bighorn herds in B.C. are prone to a wide variety of health concerns, according to Helen Schwantje, formerly a wildlife veterinarian at the Ministry of Forests. Bluetongue is closely monitored by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency because the virus poses a potential risk to the national interest when it comes to the export of meat, she said.
Cattlemen had warned the Brandows about bluetongue as early as 1983, but Boon’s comments in 2021 hardly suggest an impending showdown between ranchers and conservationists.
As for bluetongue, “We do not, generally speaking, have a reservoir for that virus in Canada. Generally, when we have an outbreak, it’s because of a cross-over from the United States,” Schwantje said. The virus is carried by tiny biting flies that, unlike bighorns, cannot overwinter in Grand Forks.
Next, signed letters by several environment ministers, of various political stripes, commend Brandow and the Sheep Committee (now defunct) for building and maintaining the highway wildlife fence. Their efforts saved area deer (not exactly a huge draw for outfitters) as well as area motorists, the ministers pointed out. Other letters, especially grant applications, show Brandow had put up a lot of his own money to build it, while Midge Brandow had led fundraising efforts of her own.
A 1989 letter by Brandow to then Environment Minster Ivan Messmer claims, “our sheep committee has spent about 715 hours fencing … Absolutely nothing will stop us from completing at least four miles of fencing (this year).”
Brandow said he hopes a younger generation will take up wildlife management and conservation, but he’s less than sanguine about their chances of success. “There’s just no political capital in it anymore,” he told The Gazette.
Brandow sold Granby Guides & Outfitters to his son, Barry, Jr. He and Midge still live in their Almonds Garden home.
He complains he’s getting older, but shows no signs of slowing down.