U.S Sheep Experiment Station, Q-Fever, and Wildlife Conflicts.

Larry Zuckerman and I recently wrote about a visit to the US Experiment Sheep Station (USSES) operated by the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) in eastern Idaho near Dubois and talked about some of the conflicts which are occurring because of the presence domestic sheep in this area which is critical for many sensitive species. Last week the comment period ended for the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) and, while researching a few things, I discovered some interesting tidbits about the USSES and its history. In our original comments on the USSES Environmental Assessment we raised concerns about various diseases, especially Q-Fever.  One of the things that led to our concerns was a comment found on the map for the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge which warns visitors of the risks of Q-Fever on USSES lands.

“ARS sheep flocks carry a disease organism that can be passed to humans using the area. The Q-fever disease can be serious for persons with heart conditions and women of childbearing age. ”

According to the CDC “Q fever is a worldwide disease with acute and chronic stages caused by the bacteria Coxiella burnetii. Cattle, sheep, and goats are the primary reservoirs although a variety of species may be infected. Organisms are excreted in milk, urine, and feces of infected animals. During birthing the organisms are shed in high numbers within the amniotic fluids and the placenta. The organism is extremely hardy and resistant to heat, drying, and many common disinfectants which enable the bacteria to survive for long periods in the environment. Infection of humans usually occurs by inhalation of these organisms from air that contains airborne barnyard dust contaminated by dried placental material, birth fluids, and excreta of infected animals. Other modes of transmission to humans, including tick bites, ingestion of unpasteurized milk or dairy products, and human to human transmission, are rare. Humans are often very susceptible to the disease, and very few organisms may be required to cause infection.”

We had also heard that there had been an outbreak of Q-Fever at the sheep station so we kept raising these concerns in subsequent comments. But, curiously, when responding to our concerns in the DEIS the ARS didn’t even acknowledge that anything had ever happened.  They say:

Between 1978 and 2004, there were seven reported cases of Q fever in Idaho and seven reported cases of Q fever in Montana (McQuiston et al., 2006). Based on the data, there is no evidence that Q fever is a significant risk to human health in Idaho and Montana. To the best of our knowledge, the warning on recreation maps, “ARS sheep flocks carry a disease organism that can be passed to humans using the area,” is not based on data describing the presence of C. burnetii on USDA, ARS, U.S. Sheep Experiment Station lands or in U.S. Sheep Experiment Station animals, nor was it based on the diagnosis of Q fever in USDA, ARS, U.S. Sheep Experiment Station employees or family, or on the diagnosis of Q fever in Idaho or Montana. In fact, we know of no survey data that would include any USDA, ARS, U.S. Sheep Experiment Station lands, animals, or employees. The warning seems to have been added originally in the 1980s, although we are not able to determine the exact date. We have not been able to determine who authorized the original statement or who authorized Harvey D. Blackburn to sign the 1996 revision of the map on behalf of the USDA, Agricultural Research Service. Because little background and supporting information accompanies this warning, the warning has created the unintended impression that people who enter Agricultural Research Service lands are at a greater risk of developing Q fever than are people who do not enter Agricultural Research Service lands, even though there are no data or any evidence to support the warning or the impression that it creates. Because it is an unfounded warning, the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have been asked to remove it when the map is revised again (Lewis, G. 2008. Personal communication).

This directly contradicts a peer reviewed paper describing an outbreak of Q-Fever back in the 1980’s which was epidemiologically linked to the USSES and its sheep. The outbreak sickened 18 people and hospitalized 4 of them for two to five weeks.

Sheep-Associated Outbreak of Q Fever, Idaho

Alan M. Rauch, MD; Martha Tanner, MD; Richard E. Pacer, DVM; Michael J. Barrett, MD; Charles D. Brokopp, DrPH; Lawrence B. Schonberger, MD
Arch Intern Med. 1987;147(2):341-344.


• Between Feb 1 and Aug 31, 1984, an outbreak of 18 symptomatic cases of Q fever occurred in Idaho; these numbers represent an increase over the three cases reported in 1982 and the five reported in 1983. Four of the patients in the outbreak required hospitalization for two to five weeks; there were no fatalities. Eight of the cases had documented Q fever hepatitis, and one had pneumonia. All 18 of the 1984 cases for whom information was available were epidemiologically linked to visiting or working at a sheep research station and/or being exposed to animals from this research station. In this outbreak, patients typically had a hepatitislike illness associated with fever and severe headache. Severity of illness ranged from asymptomatic to life threatening. Cases of pneumonia and hepatitis due to Q fever continue to occur in the United States, especially among persons exposed to livestock.
(Arch Intern Med 1987;147:341-344)

It is startling to see the USSES seemingly gloss over a significant event in its past but even more alarming when the you take into account the significance of Q-Fever and how dangerous it really is.  For example, there was a Q-Fever outbreak in Washington and Montana this year which sickened a number or people and hospitalized four.  During the period from 2007 to 2010 the Netherlands suffered an outbreak of Q-Fever which sickened 4,000 people and killed up to 19 people.  Q-Fever is also classified as a bioterrorism agent.

View All ARS used lands.kmz in a larger map

Aside from the concerns over Q-Fever there are many concerns about domestic sheep and conflicts they cause with species such as wolves, grizzlies, bighorn sheep, and other sensitive species.  Conservation groups aren’t the only ones concerned either, agencies such as the BLM USFS and Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks have all expressed concerns about these conflicts.  All of these agencies have recommended that the ARS lands which sit atop the Centennial Mountains be excluded from sheep grazing to protect sensitive species there.

The Montana Standard has published a story about the USSES and the scrutiny they are under by conservation groups and other agencies alike.

Sheep station scrutinized
By Nick Gevock of The Montana Standard.


  1. Larry Zuckerman Avatar

    nice work Ken. Who would have thought that we were actually safer on those big yellow school buses than wandering around USDA publicly-owned lands?

    Larry Z

  2. Brian Ertz Avatar

    I wish that I could say this was an innocent oversight. Unfortunately, gross oversights of this nature are not uncommon in agency response to public input. They just don’t care – don’t want to be bothered. It is less frequent that they get nailed in the lie so soundly as was the case here, where a scientific study documented an outbreak at the very place, during the very time, as denied by the administering agency. This level of malfeasance alone ought raise eyebrows about the integrity of the environmental review – and ultimately, the fiduciary practicality of the US Sheep Experiment Station’s continued operation on public lands with public dollars.


Ken Cole is a 5th generation Idahoan, an avid fly fisherman, wildlife enthusiast, and photographer. He is the interim Idaho Director for Western Watersheds Project.

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Ken Cole