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Northeast Idaho Sheep Grazing Stopped to Protect Wild Bighorns

Conservation groups win injunction in Sheep Experiment Station grazing lawsuit

Additional contacts:
Laurie Rule, Advocates for the West (503) 914-6388, lrule@advocateswest.org
Scott Lake, Western Watersheds Project (208) 429-1679, scott@westernwatersheds.org

BOISE, Ida. – A federal court in Idaho blocked domestic sheep grazing in bighorn habitat on the Caribou-Targhee National Forest yesterday, ruling that the risk to the South Beaverhead Mountains bighorn sheep population from deadly disease outweighs any possible benefit to the government-run grazing operation. The court’s order applies to the Snakey Canyon and Kelly Canyon livestock grazing allotments, which overlap with the known home range of the South Beaverhead wild bighorn herd.

“Grazing domestic sheep on the National Forest within the range of wild bighorns is completely irresponsible because of the high risk that livestock diseases will kill off entire bighorn populations,” said Scott Lake, Idaho Director for Western Watersheds Project. “The Caribou-Targhee Forest was unwilling to stand up to prevent the needless and illegal endangerment of native wildlife on our public lands, so we’re thankful that we have a robust legal system to protect our wildlife when government agencies fail to do their job.”

The University of Idaho’s domestic sheep graze the allotments free of charge under the auspices of the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station in Dubois, Idaho. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, has attempted to close the station multiple times, but it has been kept alive by regional politicians who refuse to acknowledge the station’s woeful fiscal deficit, crumbling infrastructure, and scientific irrelevance.

“[T]he risk to the bighorns is potentially catastrophic and could affect the other nearby herds,” the court’s order stated. “[T]he balance clearly tips in favor of … preserving the iconic Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, … given the potential for extirpation,” and “the minimal effect this will have” on “research for the public and the commercial sheep industry as a whole.”

“Put simply, the sheep station has outlived its usefulness,” said Greg Dyson, Wild Places Program Director for WildEarth Guardians.  “It exists to support an industry that’s been declining for years because of lack of demand, and the taxpayers should stop subsidizing its research, which needlessly endangers native wildlife including bighorn sheep and grizzly bears.”

Domestic sheep carry bacteria that cause a deadly form of pneumonia in wild bighorns.  A single nose-to-nose contact between the species may wipe out entire herds of bighorn sheep, and given the curiosity bighorns show toward their distant domestic relatives, such contact is surprisingly frequent.

According to the court, “It is the proximity between the domestic sheep grazed on the Snakey and Kelly Canyon allotments to the South Beaverhead population that demonstrates likelihood of irreparable harm. Even with flawless execution of [best management practices], there is no way the Sheep Station or Forest Service can ensure that domestic sheep will not wander, and that South Beaverhead rams will not make forays on or near the allotments while the large herds of domestic sheep are grazing.”

“The Forest Service is well aware of the high likelihood of disease transmission between the domestic sheep and wild bighorn on these allotments, but it argued that it doesn’t matter if the South Beaverhead bighorn population dies out,” said Laurie Rule, senior attorney with Advocates for the West, who represented the plaintiffs. “It does matter. It matters to the public, to wildlife advocates, and it matters under federal law. We’re very pleased that the court agreed.”

Under yesterday’s court order, the Forest Service cannot allow domestic livestock on the allotments this fall and winter as it had previously authorized.

 

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