USDA Releases Long-awaited Decision
Melissa Cain, Western Watersheds Project, firstname.lastname@example.org, 208-392-2886
DUBOIS, Ida. - The USDA has released a long-awaited decision on the fate of the agency’s controversial Idaho Sheep Experiment Station, an aging facility that conducts research benefitting private domestic sheep producers at the expense of taxpayers and native wildlife. Under this decision, management of the facility and associated grazing allotments will continue without adopting any measures to increase its compatibility with land health or wildlife habitat.
"The U.S. Sheep Station is yet another handout to the domestic sheep industry that causes substantial harm to our wildlife and wild places. It's way past time to put this part of our public lands to better use," said Greg Dyson of WildEarth Guardians.
The Sheep Station, located in the Centennial Mountains along Idaho’s border with Montana, obstructs a critical east-west wildlife corridor between the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the mountains of central Idaho, fragmenting populations of large carnivores and preventing bighorn sheep from reestablishing in their native high-elevation historic habitats. The facility also puts predators including grizzly bears, wolves, foxes, and wolverines at risk of retaliatory killing following predation incidents. Recreationists, including hikers and hunters, are banned from accessing most public lands managed by the Sheep Station.
The decision also includes a plan to reopen the Snakey Canyon and Kelly Canyon domestic sheep grazing allotments on the Caribou-Targhee National Forest following a separate NEPA analysis. These allotments were suspended in 2017 following a successful legal challenge brought by Western Watersheds Project and WildEarth Guardians.
“Domestic sheep grazing was halted in Snakey Canyon and Kelley Canyon because the Sheep Experiment Station had no way to graze their sheep safely, without severe risk of transmitting diseases likely to wipe out the imperiled South Beaverhead bighorn sheep herd,” said Melissa Cain, Bighorn Conservation Director for Western Watersheds Project.
In that case, the judge ruled that “[T]he risk to the bighorns is potentially catastrophic and could affect the other nearby herds.”
Bighorn sheep were wiped out during the era of Western settlement, as Old World pathogens carried by domestic sheep were transmitted to native bighorn sheep. By the early 1900s, bighorns had vanished from several states, with only a few thousand remaining from an estimated historic population of 1.5 to 2 million. Following more than six decades of extensive and costly restoration efforts, bighorn sheep have now been recovered to approximately 5% of their historic populations, and exist on roughly 10% of their historic range.
“Pneumonia caused by livestock pathogens continues to devastate bighorn herds, which remain small, physically and genetically isolated, and at high risk of extirpation,” said Dyson. “Despite a 2015 study that found that the Sheep Station’s research activities did not require the use of bighorn sheep habitat, USDA and sheep industry officials have resisted efforts to relocate the facility and repurpose existing structures to study sage grouse, fire, or other research needs that would actually benefit the public.”
The outdated facility has been targeted for closure by both Democratic and Republican administrations, including the Obama and Trump administrations, due to the high costs of maintaining the facility for an industry facing decades of declining consumer demand. But last-minute efforts by sheep industry lobbyists and Idaho Representative Mike Simpson have repeatedly scuttled plans to return the Centennial Range to wildlife and recreational uses.