JACKSON, Wyo. (AP) — Federal mineral leasing has drastically increased under Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, but the former Montana congressman has set aside one swath of Wyoming for the good of bighorn sheep.

Zinke's office recently announced plans to renew a mineral withdrawal of 1,431 acres  of winter range used by the struggling Whiskey Mountain Bighorn Sheep Herd.

"The Trump administration is serious about conservation, and we are backing up our words with action," Zinke said in a statement. "I've always said there are places where it is appropriate to mine and places it is not. The Whiskey Mountain range is a good example."

Interior Secretary Zinke's policies routinely earn the scorn of environmentalists who bemoan a prioritization of industrial development over land and wildlife protection. One example: Four days after Zinke's Whiskey Mountain announcement a coalition of conservation groups sued Zinke's department over plans to lease 2 million acres of core sage grouse habitat to oil and gas companies.

But those familiar with the Whiskey Mountain bighorn say the renewed withdrawal is significant and needed.

"If this important habitat would not have been continued to be withdrawn, it would have been just another straw on the camel's back," Wyoming Wild Sheep Foundation President Steve Kilpatrick said, "and right now this herd needs all the help it can get."

The Whiskey Mountain herd, an icon of Dubois, has never recovered from a bout of pneumonia that slashed the herd in half in 1990 and 1991. At last estimate it numbered about 850 animals, 40 percent under the 1,350-sheep goal, according to Wyoming Game and Fish Department reports.

"This last year the lamb-to-ewe ratio was 5-to-100, and it takes 20, 25 lambs per 100 to maintain a herd," Kilpatrick said. "We're way below that. The herd is half or less than it was historically, and it's been circling the drain for going on 28 years. It barely hangs in there."

Body fat is lacking on sheep in the herd, a sign of poor nutrition.

"Right now we got a herd that's hurting, and the worst thing we can do is decrease the quality or the quantity of the groceries," Kilpatrick said. "They just couldn't withstand that."

Zinke's withdrawal preserves two parcels, both on Bureau of Land Management property. The western chunk, located just south of Dubois, is "definitely" important winter range, Kilpatrick said. A parcel about 4 miles southeast of Torrey Lake is less used, he said.

Wyoming Game and Fish Department biologist Greg Anderson underscored the importance of the Whiskey Mountain sheep in a video released by Zinke's office.

"It's really a fantastic example of state and federal agency cooperation, along with the town of Dubois," Anderson said. "Everybody is on the same page and places a very high management objective on the population objective up there."

Whiskey Mountain bighorn genes are flowing around the West, because they were once used as a source population for struggling and extirpated herds. Over the decades 1,800 sheep were transplanted out of the foothills south of Dubois to restore and herd elsewhere.

The BLM is taking public comments on the proposed mineral withdrawal through July 25.

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