The U.S. Forest Service and an environmental group came to a temporary compromise that allows a century-old sheep drive to continue at least for this year.
The drive, which moves about 4,000 sheep between San Tan Valley and Heber in the spring and back in the fall, is on its last leg of the journey back to the East Valley this weekend.
The flock, driven by dogs and men on donkeys, will make its way on Signal Butte Road between Brown and Baseline roads Saturday and Sunday at daybreak.
"This is a dying art," said Mark Pedersen of Sheep Springs Sheep Co. in Chandler. The grazing flock surrounded Pedersen as he spoke Wednesday south of the Blue Point Bridge, where the drive had crossed the Salt River. "There's more and more obstacles in our way all the time."
One of the obstacles is development. The other came this year in the form of a lawsuit that has the potential to put the sheep company out of business.
The Western Watershed Project sued the U.S. Forest Service in July, a few weeks before the drive began its return journey. The sheep spend the summers in the cooler area foraging and mating before returning to the East Valley when the temperatures drop.
They use a trail known as the Heber-Reno sheep driveway, which has existed since 1890 and been a designated driveway since the turn of the century, according to U.S. Forest documents.
As the trail nears the East Valley, it runs through a habitat for bighorn sheep.
The environmental group contends that the domestic sheep are a threat to bighorn sheep.
The sheep spread respiratory diseases that are fatal to the bighorn sheep, and there is the potential for entire herds to be wiped out, according to the lawsuit.
The suit asked a court to put a stop to the most recent drive and force the Forest Service to conduct an environmental impact assessment.
Erik Ryberg, a Western Watershed Project attorney, said the Forest Service is required by law to complete the assessment, but the agency has been dragging its feet.
Ryberg said Wednesday he agreed not to try to stop the drive this year, which began Aug. 17, in exchange for a promise from the Forest Service to complete the assessment by April.
The Forest Service also agreed to slightly alter the route of the drive this year through a narrower section within the habitat.
Pedersen said another change is the location of one camping spot.
In years past, they always stopped for the night at a spot north of the Salt River, but now they push through to a spot on the south side.
"We were very appreciative they made those concessions," Ryberg said. "It was much better to negotiate a compromise."
Pedersen said he hopes the lawsuit doesn't close down the trail, because the business is dependent on it.
He said the chances are "very, very slim" that his sheep would infect bighorn sheep because they would have to graze beside each other for that to happen.
Pedersen said the drive is within the bighorn habitat for only a short time.
"We plan on staying in business - we've been doing this a long time," he said.
Such trails existed throughout the state and at one time, as many as 400,000 sheep used the Heber-Reno driveway.
Today, Sheep Springs is the only company with a permit to use the trail.
They travel about six miles a day, their approach signaled by the rhythmic clang of cow bells and a cloud of dust.
He said the sheep are a popular sight when they leave the Usery Pass area and head into the East Valley.
"Most of the people are entertained by the sheep coming through," he said. "It is part of the past and history of the state."