The USDA Agricultural Research Service’s US Sheep Experiment Station (USSES) near Dubois, Idaho has been in existence since Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Warren G. Harding started to withdraw land from the public domain for the USSES to conduct research to support the sheep industry in 1915. Until Western Watersheds Project and the Center for Biological Diversity sued the USSES, they had never conducted a proper analysis of their operations as required by the National Environmental Policy Act. They began their analysis in 2009 as part of a settlement agreement with WWP and CBD and produced an Environmental Analysis which found that the impacts of the Station were significant enough that they needed to go further and produce an in-depth Environmental Impact Statement which is in its draft stage.
The USSES owns five parcels comprised of 48,330 acres and utilizes several other Forest Service and BLM allotments.
The sheep research station (Headquarters, Henninger and Humphrey Ranches) is located in the upper Snake River plain at the foothills of the Centennial Mountains, approximately six miles north of Dubois, Idaho, which is the Clark County seat. The East and West Summer Ranges are in the Centennial Mountains of Montana (Beaverhead County). Through memoranda of understanding, the Sheep Station also utilizes the Mudlake Feedlot (Department of Energy) and several allotments: Bernice (BLM); and Meyers Creek, East Beaver Creek, Snakey Canyon, and Kelly Canyon (Forest Service)
View All ARS used lands.kmz in a larger map
Because the USDA is not permitted to produce sheep for market, the sheep experimented on and grazed there are owned by the University of Idaho who receives the proceeds and subsidies from the surplus sheep sold to market.
The location of the lands used by the USSES are particularly important to many species because of their value as dispersal corridors. Wolves, grizzly bears, bighorn sheep, wolverines, and many other species require these landscapes to maintain or establish connectivity between habitat in Yellowstone and Central Idaho. Bighorn sheep, which are increasingly becoming isolated in island populations, are particularly affected by the presence of domestic sheep in the Centennial Mountains and areas to the west because of fatal disease issues. They are at risk of contact on the BLM Bernice Allotment and the USFS Snakey and Kelly Canyon allotments which have occupied bighorn sheep habitat. There is also a small group of bighorn sheep which use Mt. Jefferson on the east end of the Centennial Mountains adjacent to the ARS East Summer Range.
On August 16th the Sheep Station held an open house event which was attended by about 30 people. Rather than talking about the Draft EIS, the tour was intended to tout what the Sheep Experiment Station does. Larry Zuckerman and I attended the event Larry writes about it below in his response to NRDC’s blog posting by Zac Madson, and I write a a response to a heated discussion which took place between myself and the USSES director Gregory Lewis, and a little about the visits I’ve taken over the last few years as part of a settlement agreement from litigation.
Reading Zac Madson’s recent essay Growing Better Sheep: Bears, Wolves, and Rangeland Management, a personal account of the recent U.S. Sheep Experiment Station tour in Dubois, Idaho, I needed to check twice if we shared the same experience. Yes, Ken Cole (WWP), Zac Madson (NRDC), and I (as were some 30 or so ranchers, government officials, NGO conservationists, and university professors) were on the same tour on August 16, 2011… and yes, we even boarded the same big yellow school buses, took the same carefully controlled designated routes, made the same three stops, and heard from politically-correct university researchers on how great the USSES was – at least for basic, ecological research involving experimental manipulations that are publishable in peer-reviewed scientific journals – not really domestic sheep production applied research at all. I checked the digital images from my camera and yep… we were all on the same “dog-and-pony show” orchestrated for the public by the USDA Agricultural Resources Service.
The public relations arm of the ARS and its cooperators was in fine form that day and if WWP had not worked with Center for Biological Diversity’s attorney Marc Fink on scoping comments for a Draft Environmental Impact Statement that was released a few days before the tour, you would have never known that there was any environmental controversy or wildlife conflicts with ARS’ Sheep Experiment Station. Discussing the DEIS, our legal settlement with ARS to conduct NEPA for the first time on the USSES, and other wildlife and public lands controversies were off the table and appeared strictly taboo – even for the cooperating university professors. There was a chill in the air – and it wasn’t the hot, August weather hovering over Eastern Idaho.
Most of the presenters, officials, and participants seemed to have on blinders… or at least rose-tinted glasses – to help present a more positive, cheery impression of the ARS’ century-old experimental sheep station. What else that was not discussed and for the most part, even noticed – except for Ken and I – were the acres of weed infestations (e.g., thistles, spotted knapweed, cheatgrass and leafy spurge), 47 dead migratory birds floating in an old, mosquito-infested (West Nile Virus?) cement livestock watering, and miles and miles of fences with high densities of cross fences to establish the experimental paddocks that litter the landscape – none adorned with BMP-recommended visibility enhancers like plastic flagging, especially in consideration of the high density of sage-grouse leks on the lower elevation Dubois ARS lands; and several expensive disinfection sites to potentially cleanse oneself of Q Fever, which plagues the USSES from infected sheep.
What we did not hear in response to our questions were: How do you prevent the sheep from spreading noxious weeds from this relatively intact sagebrush steppe ecosystem? How many stock tanks (without escape ladders or rafts) are there on the Experiment Station? How many imperiled sage-grouse die every year from these fences and what impact on wild ungulates and other wildlife does the sheep fencing have? How many wolves and grizzly bears have been killed (or non-lethally Taken) because of predation and other perceived conflicts with Station sheep? How do the experimental manipulations affect regionally sensitive pygmy rabbits, sage-grouse, and other wildlife?
ARS clearly indicated that they do not monitor sage-grouse mortalities related to their maze of sheep fences. They obviously do not control noxious weeds or ensure that the sheep bands don’t continue to spread them from the Snake River Plain into the high country of the Centennials. The pat answer provided by ARS was that wildlife and the impacts of the USSES’ operation were outside of its mandate and legislative purview as a sheep research center. It was a real eye-opener to hear the manager of this arm of the USDA on vast government-owned lands speak like he was the CEO for Pfizer Pharmaceuticals or the head of R&D for Monsanto: “capitalize on our research investment and protect our intellectual property” – publications must appear in print before they release the public datasets and results of the publicly funded research conducted in Dubois. The 28,000-acre station, although Federal property, is not open to the public, even for a harmless hike or bird watching outing.
The most outrageous, possibly naive, probably dodge, was when Greg Lewis, the director, repeatedly and adamantly claimed that they were not responsible for any wolf or grizzly bear kills (except for one wolf killed while trapping stinkin’ coyotes on USSES) but rather they just did their duty and reported wolf-sheep conflicts to another arm of the USDA – Wildlife Services, the paid government wildlife killing agents, who have killed wolves in and near the Dubois station – including the entire Sage Creek Pack. Lewis refused to abandon the higher elevation grazing including two public allotments where much of the wildlife conflicts and enviros’ complaints about USSES stem from – claiming it was necessary for their support of the sheep industry with their research – even though the ARS has obviously moved away that type of applied research and management recommendations and has little to do with the domestic sheep industry in the Northern Rockies.
Even if their research efforts and management of the station had some relevance to the real domestic sheep grazing industry (USSES grazes bands of only 600 with supposedly 5-15% utilization, supposedly regularly moves stockwater tanks to avoid environmental damage, and moves sheep when conflicts with wolves or grizzly bears are detected), there was little hope that sheep ranchers would implement any improvements (ARS researchers find that sheep can control leafy spurge if they graze it before it goes to seed, but admitted to us that sheep will spread weeds if they graze or trail through them after they have gone to seed).
The biggest omission despite the ARS’ Dubois, ID mission, history, and evident infrastructure were sheep! We did not see one of the 3,500 domestic lambs or 3,000 ewes that are owned by the University of Idaho (“USDA cannot be in the sheep production business” – but somehow, the U of I can!) in all the thousands of acres of sagebrush steppe we viewed from the buses and on foot. That’s because the sheep, South American sheepherders, herding dogs, and vicious guard dogs were in the Centennial Mountains, where also gray wolves, mountain lions, bighorn sheep, and grizzly bears earn their “livings” as they have for millennia. We did see some sheep dung as well as some of the Idaho dwindling industry’s biggest players – like Margaret Soulen Hinson, the President of the American Sheep Industry Association and part owner of Soulen Livestock with the LT. Governor’s wife Teresa Little, which received payments totaling $1,246,818 from 1995 through 2010 of U.S. tax dollars in sheep grazing subsidies, Ken Wixom, who received subsidy payments totaling $764,115 from 1995 through 2010, and is President of the Idaho Woolgrowers Association – who is looking to fund the NEPA process in hopes to reopen closed sheep allotments in the Boise National Forest -, Jim Hagenbarth, who echoed Zac’s empty point of being descended from several generations of Northern Rockies sheep growers, who devastated thousands of acres of public and private lands and killed native predators for more than a century, and state livestock apologist Ron Kay of the Idaho State Department of Agriculture.
I read Zac’s bio and his background information and in response I must say: I am a third generation American (all four grandparents from Kiev, Ukraine); not a native –like the displaced Salmon Eaters (“Akai-dikas”) of Sacajewea fame (now known by the misnomer of Lemhi Shoshone or government-created Shoshone-Bannock Tribes), Sheep Eaters (“Tuku-dikas”), bighorn sheep, or the gray wolves, grizzly bears, and coyotes that Zac writes of; but rather a transplant from the Northeast who has chosen to call Idaho and the West home, but who also enjoys public lands and wildlife wherever they occur in North America, whether I ever get to experience them directly or not.
If people must raise domestic sheep, why not on their own land, without government subsidies, out of harms way of bighorn sheep, grizzly bears, and gray wolves, and without destroying the wild public lands and rivers that belong to all Americans. I might agree that domestic sheep ranchers are a dying breed in the U.S…. and it might just be better for native wildlife, public lands, healthy ecosystems, and the rest of us taxpayers.
If it is too much of a challenge as Zac points out; then get out of the business. The empty threats of subdivisions in place of subsidized sheep ranches in Idaho’s High Deserts – are just that; empty, particularly during this recession with little or no housing starts and thousands of foreclosures every month. What would be more economically enlightened, at least over the hill in the Lemhi River Basin would be a real choice between highly subsidized, ecologically-unsustainable domestic livestock production or preserving the family ranch by removing the Snake River Dams and restoring native Chinook salmon, steelhead, and extinct Coho salmon runs and all the angler money that were flow upstream with them and minimum instream flows. Perhaps, a similar solution involving trophy native Westslope cutthroat trout or Montana fluvial grayling restorations might help the beleaguered Hagenbarth and his descendants retain the vast family land holdings in Idaho and Montana.
Zac and NRDC, as well as other well-intentioned “collaborators” like Trout Unlimited and The Nature Conservancy, are misdirected when they preach “Better Living Through Improved Grazing” – it is like when DOW Chemical propaganda designed to sway the American public with “Better Living Through Chemistry” – Don’t buy it for the Arid American West, Caveat Emptor! How quickly we forget history like when collaborator during WWII was equated with traitor. How much more compromise can the endangered West and its iconic wildlife stand, after more than a century of dismal failures and resource over-exploitation?
When visiting the USSES lands in 2009 with personnel from a special USFS team assembled to conduct NEPA analysis for agencies who don’t have their own personnel experienced in such matters, I was able to become familiar with much of the landscape and issues surrounding the Station. While at first glance all seems to be well as far as ecological condition, it soon became evident that there are some chronic and longstanding issues that are hidden from view to the casual viewer.
Weeds and erosion of steep areas repeatedly used for trailing were of particular concern but so was the evidence of unaccounted sheep left behind in country where they could habituate predators to them as a food source or be encountered by bighorn sheep. Wildlife unfriendly fencing and drastically changed plant communities were also apparent.
On one visit, I brought up the question of wolves on one day and the USFS team didn’t know much about the history of conflicts there. The next morning we met at the Humphrey Ranches parcel near Monida Pass and they reported to me that they asked one of the long time employees responsible for the Station about it who told them that wolves had never been much of a problem for the sheep. Just a few minutes later an employee of the NRCS happened by and got into a conversation with the group and just happened to mention, out of the blue, that wolves had been killing USSES sheep for the last several nights right near where we were. Later in the day we stopped in a little store in Spencer where the clerk asked what we were all up to. When one of the team members told them they were there to do some work on the USSES she mentioned that it seemed like the place operated under a cloud of secrecy and didn’t tell the locals much about what was going on there. She did happen to hear about an incident a few years earlier where wolves had killed a bunch of sheep. Needless to say, I and a few of the team members seemed a little miffed that we all had been led to believe otherwise.
While at the August 16 open house, I got into a heated discussion with Gregory Lewis, director of the USSES, who adamantly claimed that wolves had not been killed because of conflicts with USSES sheep. He claimed that the USSES never asked for wolves to be killed in response to these conflicts but that they were reported to “the proper authorities” who later killed the Sage Creek Pack. Mr. Lewis either doesn’t understand that when livestock is killed by wolves Wildlife Services is eager to jump into their airplane and gun down a bunch of wolves, or he conveniently refuses to acknowledge that wolves like to kill sheep and that the presence of the sheep and the Station’s poor animal husbandry of them caused the conflict in the first place. Regardless, the Sage Creek Pack was doomed from the minute they were presented with these unattended, tasty little morsels.
I complied a bunch of information gleaned from various reports which show that shortly after the incident at the Humphrey Ranches parcel, the Sage Creek Pack was terminated, not solely for killing USSES sheep but in large part for that. This is why, as you’ll see from Larry Zuckerman’s telling of our most recent visit, I was a little miffed at being challenged when I said that conflicts with USSES sheep were responsible for the death of the Sage Creek Pack.
“On 6/8, Idaho WS confirmed a sheep was killed on the U. S. Sheep Station near Humphrey, ID. The pack thought responsible is called Sage Creek and it is a border pack. ID WS heard the Sage Creek radio within about ½ mile of the depredation site. ID Fish and Game authorized ID WS to remove 1 wolf. The pack has since moved back into Montana and MT FWP has given ID WS or MT WS staff authorization to work on either side of the state line.
On 6/16, ID WS killed a member of the Sage Creek pack in Montana, as authorized by FWP. Back on 6/8, Idaho WS confirmed a sheep was killed on the U. S. Sheep Station near Humphrey, ID. The pack thought responsible is called Sage Creek and it is a border pack. MT FWP has given ID WS or MT WS staff authorization to work on either side of the state line. Lethal control is completed. FWP and IDFG are taking steps to improve coordination on border packs that are confirmed to have injured / killed livestock.
On 7/16, IDFG called FWP (Ross) and reported that the Sage Creek pack (a MT-ID border pack that is counted in the MT population) had killed another sheep on the Experimental Sheep Station near Humphrey ID. FWP agreed to the IDFG request for lethal control and granted permission for IDWS to work within MT and to coordinate their work with MT WS. One adult male was killed on 7/23.
On 7/23, FWP (Lance) coordinated with ID Fish and Game and ID WS regarding confirmed sheep killed near Humphrey ID by a wolf pack that is a “border” pack. This pack resides in ID and is considered an ID pack, though it occasionally travels in Montana. IDFG had authorized full pack removal. FWP authorized ID WS to carry out lethal control efforts in MT should the wolves be found in MT and requested ID WS to coordinate their work with MT WS. ID WS killed one adult wolf about 1 mile across the state border into MT on 7/23. The carcass will be retained by IDFG as a part of their pack management / data collection effort.
On 7/30, IDFG contacted FWP to report that 13 buck sheep were confirmed killed just across the MTID border in ID on the sheep experiment station. This is the same area as previous sheep losses on 6/10 and 7/16, totaling six dead sheep. The Sage Creek pack is suspected to have a rendezvous site 1-3 miles away from the sheep pasture on the ID side of the border, but the pack dens in Montana and is considered a Montana pack. FWP has been coordinating with IDFG since June. There is also close coordination between IDFG, ID WS and MT WS. FWP and IDFG decided to authorize removal of up to three adult wolves, which is ongoing. Monitoring suggests that two adults and a litter of pups would remain when this lethal control effort concludes.
Correction: FWP previously reported that a MT-ID border pack east of I-15 was a border pack that was counted in the ID population. After 3 incidents in which at least 10 sheep were killed in the Middle Creek / Pleasant Valley areas on the ID side of the border, MT FWP and IDFG decided to authorize lethal removal of the rest of the pack. During the control efforts, it was learned that the pack had indeed denned on the MT side of the state border and will in fact be counted / reported as a Montana pack – and not an ID pack. All control efforts concluded by 7/23, with the removal of an adult male and 6 pups.
On 8/3, IDWS confirmed that wolves killed 7 buck sheep on the ID sheep experiment station near Humphrey in the same area as previous losses occurred on 6/10, 7/16, and 8/3. FWP had authorized removal of up to three adult wolves, which was completed by ID WS on 8/4.
The final straw for the Sage Creek Pack comes from this incident: http://fwp.mt.gov/content/getItem.aspx?id=39997
On 8/17 WS confirmed one calf and had a second calf as probable killed by wolves in the West Fork of Corral Creek (public land) on the south side of the Centennial Valley in Montana and near the Idaho border. This is in the territory of the Sage Creek pack. This pack has been involved in confirmed livestock losses in Montana and Idaho in 2009. Six adult wolves have been killed thus far and with this newly confirmed incident, MT WS has been authorized to remove the remaining pack members.
Previous entries on the USSES:
Sheep Station Restricts Grazing to Protect Grizzly Bears
April 6, 2010
Larry Zuckerman is the Central Idaho Director of Western Watersheds Project in Salmon, Idaho, who enjoys fly-fishing in the Rockies whenever he gets a chance (rarely), and usually is not in the habit of opposing the views of other environmental organizations.
- Do you have some interesting wildlife related news? April 17, 2014 edition April 17, 2014
- Cliven Bundy’s Shell Game: Why it Matters to the Tortoise that BLM Finishes what it Started April 17, 2014
- Wikipedia article on “Bundy Standoff” April 16, 2014
- The taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for grazing either. April 16, 2014
- Jackson Hole: Geology 101. How to disturb a slumbering landslide April 16, 2014
- Lyn McCormick on Do you have some interesting wildlife related news? April 17, 2014 edition
- Greta on Cliven Bundy’s Shell Game: Why it Matters to the Tortoise that BLM Finishes what it Started
- Harley on Wikipedia article on “Bundy Standoff”
- Scott Slocum on Do you have some interesting wildlife related news? April 17, 2014 edition
- MJ on Do you have some interesting wildlife related news? April 17, 2014 edition
- MJ on Cliven Bundy’s Shell Game: Why it Matters to the Tortoise that BLM Finishes what it Started
- Bill in NC on Cliven Bundy’s Shell Game: Why it Matters to the Tortoise that BLM Finishes what it Started
- Mike on Cliven Bundy’s Shell Game: Why it Matters to the Tortoise that BLM Finishes what it Started
- Jay on Cliven Bundy Has No Claim to Federal Land and Grazing
- Nancy on Cliven Bundy Has No Claim to Federal Land and Grazing
- Nancy on Do you have some interesting wildlife related news? April 17, 2014 edition
- MJ on Do you have some interesting wildlife related news? April 17, 2014 edition
- Nancy on Wikipedia article on “Bundy Standoff”
- W.Hong on Wikipedia article on “Bundy Standoff”
- Nancy on Cliven Bundy’s Shell Game: Why it Matters to the Tortoise that BLM Finishes what it Started