Environmental Groups File Lawsuit to Protect Grizzly Bears at U.S. Sheep Experiment Station.

Environmental groups have asked a federal court in Montana to stop domestic sheep grazing this summer at the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station in southwest Montana. On June 23, 2014, Cottonwood Environmental Law Center, Western Watersheds Project, WildEarth Guardians and Gallatin Wildlife Association filed a lawsuit challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Biological Opinion for the Sheep Station, which states there have been no grizzly bear/human encounters in the past. The groups claim they obtained documents through a Freedom of Information Act request that state grizzly bears have chased sheepherders, likely away from sheep carcasses, on two separate occasions.

The U.S. Sheep Experiment Station was created in 1915 and is managed by the United States Department of Agriculture. The station grazes more than 1,000 sheep every year in the Centennial mountains of southwest Montana. The biological opinion for the research facility was issued on May 31, 2014 and was prepared as part of a settlement agreement that resolved a 2013 lawsuit by the groups that challenged the previous biological opinion.

The Centennial mountains are widely regarded by biologists as one of the most important travel corridors for grizzly bears. The mountain range is unique because of its east-west configuration, allowing grizzly bears and other carnivores to travel between Yellowstone National Park and large wilderness areas in Idaho. Glenn Hockett, President of Gallatin Wildlife Association, said, “It is ridiculous that the Sheep Station is still trying to graze domestic sheep in some of the most important wildlife habitat in the northern Rockies.” Black bears, coyotes, foxes and entire packs of wolves have all been shot, trapped and aerially gunned down because of sheep conflicts at the Sheep Station. John Meyer, Executive Director of Cottonwood Environmental Law Center and attorney for the groups said that “There are no grizzlies in the Bitterroots, but removing domestic sheep from this important travel corridor can help change that.”

The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail runs through the Summer West allotment. “The last thing our members want when hiking on the CDT is to see or encounter aggressive guard dogs and a flock of domestic sheep.” Meyer said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service sent a letter to the Agricultural Research Service in 2010 that strongly encouraged the Sheep Station not to graze in the Centennial mountains. The Sheep Station agreed to close two allotments, but decided to continue grazing on the Summer West allotment. The Groups say that the decision-makers missed a crucial fact— at the time of the decision all of the previous grizzly bear conflicts had occurred in the allotment that was kept open.

In July 2012, the Yellowstone Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Committee sent a letter to the Agricultural Research Service asking them not to graze in the Summer West allotment because of grizzly bear concerns. The Committee consists of members of the Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, MT Fish, Wildlife and Parks and Idaho Fish and Game. Tim Bozorth, who acted as the BLM representative for the Committee said, “the Sheep Station should be leading by example, not holding things back. It’s time for the Sheep Station to find a more suitable location for their operations.” The 2012 Grizzly Committee letter says that the Forest Service has previously closed eight adjacent sheep grazing allotments due to concerns for grizzly bears.

In October 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recovered the collar from grizzly bear number 726 from a creek in the Summer West allotment. The collar had been cut off and was being held in a creek under a rock. Investigators ruled out hunters as suspects. Telemetry data and a law enforcement report say the domestic sheep and grizzly bear 726 were in the same place at the same time. An empty .308 rifle cartridge was recovered from the sheepherders’ camp. According to the report, the sheepherders are only issued .308 caliber rifles. The report also says that sheepherders killed two black bears in the same area in 2012 that were killing sheep.

The University of Idaho owns the sheep and hires the herders. The sheepherders are hired for three-year contracts. Both the sheepherders that worked the Summer West allotment when grizzly 726 went missing were late reporting for work in 2013 and were reported to the Department of Homeland Security for breaching their contract, a violation of their Visa to the United States. The reports says they closed their bank accounts and changed their phone numbers. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was not able to interview them and their location is unknown. The groups are offering a $6,500 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person responsible for killing grizzly 726.

Meyer said he was surprised that the University of Idaho would continue to supply sheep to the Sheep Station for grazing in the Centennial mountains given all of the previous conflicts. “The University of Idaho could decide they don’t want their sheepherders being chased by grizzly bears. The University seems to have a rather callous disregard for its contractors, rare wildlife and the recommendations of every expert agency involved, including the Idaho Fish and Game.” Meyer said.

Greg Lewis, who served as the head of the Sheep Station since 2000, retired on June 29, 2013, while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was investigating the disappearance of grizzly #726.
“The Agricultural Research Station’s sheep grazing is endangering native wildlife and preventing the range from serving as a wildlife corridor,” said Travis Bruner, Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project. “There is no good reason to continue the ‘experiment’ in how many native predators have to die to maintain the sheep operations. At the very least, the agencies should admit that their deaths are what it takes to run sheep in the Centennials and environmental documents should honestly analyze those impacts.”

The groups are asking the district court in Missoula to stop grazing that is supposed to start mid-July. “The Sheep Station must be held accountable,” said Bryan Bird, WildEarth Guardians Wild Places Program Director. “Nothing less than our great American heritage of wild places is at risk from a subsidized government research facility.” “The Sheep Station has several alternative grazing allotments nearby that are not in important grizzly habitat. We are not opposed to them grazing there until this matter is resolved.” Meyer said.

The groups are being represented by Cottonwood Environmental Law Center and the Law Office of Natalie Havlina in Boise, Idaho.


  1. Sheryl Avatar

    Please abolish all sheep grazing in this corridor. The wildlife are much more important than grazing sheep. Sheep should be kept in enclosed pastures and guarded. They should not be allowed to roam free. It’s just common sense.

  2. Elk375 Avatar

    I have a several friends who went black bear hunting the weekend of June 15th in northeast corner of the Centennial Valley near the sands dunes for those who are familiar with the area. They hike and hunt near the West Fork of the Madison. They go every year and never kill bears and nor do they want to kill bears, but enjoy hunting.

    This year they saw 7 different grizzlies, 3 of them boars, and five black bears. Ten years ago they would see on an average of one grizzly and ten black bears. Each year the number of black bear sightings decrease and grizzly bear sightings increase. The Centennial Valley has and will become an important grizzly corridor.

  3. Larry Thorngren Avatar

    It is time to close this relic of the last century.

  4. Gary Humbard Avatar
    Gary Humbard

    Grizzly bears have enough obstacles trying to disperse to additional habitat, they certainly don’t need 1,000 blah, blah domestic sheep to get in their way. Everyone knows the Centennial Mountains provide a key corridor for the bears to reacj the Bitteroot Mountains which are designated as a grizzly bear recovery zone.

    I must be missing something. Considering the IGBC requested the closure of the summer allotment, the US Forest Service closed 8 adjacent allotments, a radio collar from a grizzly was recovered from the summer allotment and there are alternative allotments available, why would they continue to graze sheep in this critical corridor?

  5. JOhn R Avatar
    JOhn R

    Time to remove the sheep from this area. Let the wildlife (bears, wolves) roam the Centennial mountains and valley without having to worry about getting into trouble with sheep.

    1. Larry Thorngren Avatar

      Time to remove domestic sheep from ALL public lands. They carry disease, they are herded by underpaid foreigners and are used as an excuse to kill a wide variety of wildlife including coyotes,wolves,grizzlies,cougars and black bears.
      The costs the woolgrowers inflict on us with wool, meat and grazing subsidies plus the money spent on predator control, far outweigh their benefit to society.

  6. Logan Avatar

    Perhaps rather than a complete elimination of sheep grazing in this area a change of focus should be considered. Current research at the site centers on range productivity and sheep ranching efficiency. Due to the large amount of sheep grazing in Idaho, Montana and other western states the research would have more to contribute by studying sheep grazing in conjunction with wildlife. This would provide information that could then be used across the west.

    By continuing to graze and pioneer better range practices to reduce or prevent damage to the ecosystem, they could also study the interaction between the grizzlies, wolves and sheep and not interfere with the outcome. If sheep are killed by predators, don’t kill the predator, just study the occurance and attempt to learn ways to prevent future conflict.

    Yes, it would be easier to just eliminate grazing in the area and eliminate grazing everywhere else but I see grazing as a legitimate use of the public lands. The problems associated with subsidies, grazing fees and lease agreements should also be addressed and the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station could be just the place to test the economics of increased fees and predator loss if the focus were redirected towards that goal.

    Ultimately, I would rather hike into those mountains and see herds of Bighorn Sheep than domestic sheep. There were once 50,000 wild sheep in Idaho, reduced to 3000 now. Domestic Sheep grazing should be eliminated in many areas or relocated for the sake of restoring Bighorns, the Centennial Mountains may be one of the those areas but I don’t think we will be eliminating the sheep industry anytime soon on public lands but maybe we can learn what level of grazing could be sustained without significant impacts on wildlife. However, if I had to chose between wild sheep and domestic sheep, I’ll chose the wild sheep every time.

    It also appears to me that it is not the Sheep grazing that prevents Grizzlies from dispersing to central Idaho, it is the illegal killing of grizzly bears by employees of the sheep station that prevents dispersal. Focus on prosecuting those responsible for the killings and set better controls for monitoring and enforcement to prevent future grizzly deaths.

    1. topher Avatar

      “However, if I had to chose between wild sheep and domestic sheep, I’ll chose the wild sheep every time.”
      If I were allowed to choose I would choose wild sheep and I think most people would agree. It’s almost certainly one or the other.

    2. Ken Cole Avatar

      The problem with your suggestion is that little of what the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station researches now with regard to “Best Management Practices” is actually implemented on the ground because of the costs associated with them. If it costs more and there aren’t mandatory terms and conditions placed on the permits then it doesn’t happen.

      The Centennial Mountains is the worst place for this kind of research to be conducted and I doubt the utility of the research to begin with.

      There are also practical health issues related to past activities on these lands. Look up Q fever and U.S. Sheep Experiment Station on this site and you will find links to a report outlining an outbreak of Q fever associated with the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station that sickened 19 people in the 1980’s. There are also rumors that they researched anthrax on the Station as well.

  7. Ida Lupines Avatar
    Ida Lupines

    Gregg Losinski of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game said trapping areas are marked with signs that should be heeded, though remote cameras have recorded humans walking around baited culvert traps and even looking inside.

    “We still see people going behind signs trying to investigate what’s going on in the trapping area, and that’s not a very smart thing to do,” he said, noting there is also bait outside the traps that in past years have lured bears weighing more than 600 pounds.


    1. Ida Lupines Avatar
      Ida Lupines

      I have to ask – if the grizzlies ‘may be reaching carrying capacity’ and are delisted, why must hunting immediately follow? Can’t they be observed for the ‘five years’ afterwards that is usually the procedure? Why must we parasitize them and other wildlife by hunting them when they’ve just been declared healthy enough in number? It’s not a permanent fix for state’s flagging economies. In articles I see that outfitters are being quoted as experts regarding delisting.

      Louise, I saw your post about the slight increase in right whales populations. Let’s hope that’s not enough to re-introduce whaling in New Bedford!

      1. Nancy Avatar

        “Why must we parasitize them and other wildlife by hunting them when they’ve just been declared healthy enough in number?”

        Excellent question Ida. Because of hunting & ranching interests, would be my best guess.

        Hunters can’t wait to profit (emotionally) by “owning” a prized trophy and outfitters, providing guided trips, to provide hunters with a prized trophy.

        Ranchers? Grizzlies scare the crap out of them. Profit loss if your product (cattle) are not close to home (as on public lands) and even if the product is close to home, it would require one to be more attentive.

        May of related this story before but had a ranching friend near the Bob Marshall, who one day while outside, realized the whole ranch had gone suddenly silent.

        Life on a ranch, can always hear the usual ranch sounds – chickens, cows, horses etc.

        Then he saw this huge grizzly, making its way thru the barnyard. He’d never, in his 70 years in the area, seen a grizzly that big 🙂

        But it didn’t hang around, just moving thru. All his fencing was hot wire. Non-lethal. Perhaps tested by this griz in the past, as it made its rounds?

        1. Amre Avatar

          If only they used those non lethal methods more. The thing is, most ranchers do what their grandfather did, And if their grandfather killed grizzlies, wolves, coyotes, etc they do that.

  8. Jerry Black Avatar
    Jerry Black

    Ken mentioned some questionable practices in the Centennials besides the negative effect on grizzlies ( Q fever and anthrax)……2 years ago I participated in a grizzly data gathering study, in and adjacent to the Centennials. One reason for this study was the possibility of oil and gas exploration in this area. Several companies were looking at it. Plenty of grizzlies, moose, elk, deer, wolves and antelope in the Red Rocks Lake area…..one of my favorite places in Montana.

    1. Elk375 Avatar

      “one of my favorite places in Montana” you and I agree one thing Jerry. In 1981 Exxon drilled a well at Monida on the Idaho side of the divided. The reason it was drilled on the Idaho side was that there was less regulator regulations in Idaho than Montana. For many years there was a drilling rig stacked at the airport in Dell. It has since been moved.

      1. alf Avatar

        At about that time, there were exploration teams crawling all over SW Montana, and several test wells drilled : One on one of the Hershey’s ranches in the Big Hole, one probably less than a mile from Beaverhead Rock, another on the Snowline Grazing Association’s property near Lima, and one on the east slope of the Tendoy Mtns., near Dell. Those are just the ones that I can think of, off hand.

        Then-professor of geology at the U. of Montana in Missoula, Dave Alt (editor of the state Roadside Geology series) publically stated that he could drink every drop of commercial oil they found in SW MT. From the looks of things, he was right.

  9. Gary Humbard Avatar
    Gary Humbard

    I realize there are always two sides to a issue but considering grizzlies inhabitat only 1% of their former range, most of their deaths are attributed to humans and three of their four most critical prey base are declining within the greater Yellowstone, I find it confusing why the US Sheep Station would not use less critical habitat for their sheep. I also question the purpose and need for over 100 years of sheep research.

    There is no viable reason to conduct sheep research within this critical link and I will be sending letters to the sheep station and University of Idaho with comments.

  10. Gary Humbard Avatar
    Gary Humbard

    Hopefully this lawsuit will not be needed as the Secretary of Agriculture has proposed closing the station and this misuse of tax money will be history.


    1. alf Avatar

      This is indeed good news, if allowed to go through, but if I had a ranch to bet on it, I think I could pretty safely bet that political meddling will squash it.

      That said, nice try, Vilsack. Now how about standing up the poster child of agribusiness bullies, the Monsanto Corp. ??

  11. Debra K Avatar
    Debra K

    People from outside Idaho can really help here. Other states’ senators and representatives need to hear that their constituents support Secy. Vilsack’s recommendation to close down the Sheep Station. It will both save taxpayer funds and help wildlife.

    I find it highly amusing that Idaho politicians rail against the feds for big gov. But when the feds actually propose to eliminate wasteful programs, they show their true welfare queen colors and whine about losing their handouts.

    Hunting/recreation activities due to improved wildlife habitat would bring lots more dollars to the dying economy of Clark County than this historical relic devoted to propping up an industry in its heyday in WWI.

    1. Nancy Avatar


    2. Barb Rupers Avatar
      Barb Rupers

      Well said Debra K. I noticed in the linked article that the Idaho legislators and the governor were not in favor of the bill as you pointed out. A couple of other articles that might be helpful for other interested people, states’ senators and representatives to look at for background information:

      http://rangenet.org/directory/smithr/SheepExpSta.pdf summary situation

    3. WM Avatar

      ++ It will both save taxpayer funds and help wildlife.++

      I don’t think the save taxpayer funds part is necessarily true. Those funds will be redirected, probably within ID (hopefully), but not that County.

      And, there will be some folks who had some of the higher paying jobs (with medical/dental/vision benefits/pension accrual) that will either be unemployed or move away. In either case the local economy loses out.

      Will those loses net out against a predicted increased recreational economy? I will disagree with you, and say unlikely.

      Federal jobs (FS, BLM, NPS, FWS, WS) provide some of the most stable and higher paying jobs in many rural areas, and indeed the wages and the paid health benefits ripple through the local economies, regardlesso of what clueless, mostly R politicians say to get votes.

      1. Yvette Avatar

        “Federal jobs (FS, BLM, NPS, FWS, WS) provide some of the most stable and higher paying jobs in many rural areas,….”

        Federal employees can transfer to other positions; they an take early retirement, and in the current political climate many federal agencies have already been cutting back with forced unpaid furlough days, and budget cuts to grants and programs. Why should the sheep research station be any different if it has outlived its purpose?

        1. WM Avatar


          Did you really miss the part about the impact to the local economy, even if some of these folks move away to take other transfer jobs with the feds (but in this climate I doubt as many are available), if offered? The article said only 3 would take retirement (who knows if they would even stay in the area?), and others would move away.

          I was merely trying to give some balance by offering the other side of the argument. In case it wasn’t obvious, the point was this may be good for wildlife (and I think that is great), but to the local economy of this rural county this would be a big hit. And, yeah, I understand some wildlife advocates could give a shit whether peoples’ lives change in the blink of an eye when jobs go away, whether public sector or private.

          1. MAD Avatar

            I guess you didn’t read the article where it said ONLY 21 full-time jobs are being lost at the facility, and 17 will be offered jobs elsewhere. If a county is teetering on the edge of insolvency and 21 jobs is going to push it over the precipice, I think it’s time to get some new local management.

            Say nothing of the more than $1.5 million the facility is losing every year, say nothing about the wildlife and fauna disrupted by this sham of a research station, but heck, them 21 jobs are gonna save the local economy. Some people would have no life if they couldn’t complain about every little thing, no matter how good or necessary it is. Contrarians ’til the end. I don’t understand.

            This closing should be celebrated, not vilified.

            1. WM Avatar

              Oh, I don’t know there MAD. Seems to me a 5% reduction in total employment in a county with population of less than 1,000 people (that has already had a loss of 22% of its employment base in the last 5 years when another employer left the area), could take a pretty good chunk. Let’s look at the total dollars, because there are probably some contract services or direct payments to others that come from that $1.9M sheep station budget that would be lost, as well. And, let’s say these folks move away to other federal jobs that are offered, maybe outside that county. One could reasonably expect some of these employees are married, maybe have kids in school there, own property on which they live, which may be sold at discounted prices. So maybe 50-75 folks move out of the County. Maybe they got a haircut or bought groceries in Dubois, filled the pickup at the local gas station. I’m thinking this is a pretty good hit to Clark County in general, and maybe the school district, too. To put into context, let’s say Boise would take 5% drop in employment. That would be about 4,000 jobs. Think that might hurt a bit even on that scale?

              And a federal job offer elsewhere isn’t always sincere. Had a friend who was a field geologist when Clinton closed the US Bureau of Mines in Spokane. His offer was to relocate to Washington DC, as were several others in his office. Nobody took the cross country replacement jobs, and the feds count on that.

              My comment is not to vilify. You may have read that I already agreed closing was a good thing. Rather, the point was to emphasize the impact of these job losses to local economies in various parts of the West. Idaho Falls, for example, would become a ghost town without the national nuke lab. I doubt that operates at any sort of profit, either.

  12. topher Avatar

    “Hunting/recreation activities due to improved wildlife habitat would bring lots more dollars to the dying economy of Clark County than this historical relic devoted to propping up an industry in its heyday in WWI.”
    Other than a gas station I’m not sure where a person would go to spend money in Clark County. I also don’t think hunting opportunities will change much. I have to agree with WM, overall probably a loss for the local economy. I do think it’s good news that they are shutting it down but not for any of those reasons.

  13. Nancy Avatar

    From the map, Clark county looks like a ranching and ag community. (Like hundred’s of other small communities scattered across Idaho & Montana) What businesses they do have, probably depend more on income from the interstate crowd passing thru.



  14. Debra K Avatar
    Debra K

    Any small community dependent on federal jobs or money that doesn’t heed the trend of the federal government to consolidate operations is ignoring reality. Besides FS/BLM office closures that have been going on for decades, look at the Post Office, Social Security offices, etc. The federal government is not going to be able to continue to be the benevolent (?) overlord by carrying the overhead for hundreds of small facilities around the West.

    Yes, I am sympathetic to the folks of Clark County for having to endure a time of transition. But I drove through Dubois (county seat) about 5 years ago (not from I-15, but from local roads ID-22 and Clark County A-2 on my way over to Island Park). It had that “boarded up” feel then, so the need to look at ways to change or diversify its economy should be no surprise.

    High Country News a few issues back had an article about how Gallup NM is seeking to attract visitors by developing a big network of trails.

    I am not saying that Clark Co should imitate Gallup. However, there could be a strategic review of what the assets of the area are, and how they may want to capitalize on those.

    If the economy is heavily ag dependent, that sector has generally been doing better than the economy as a whole. If ranchers/farmers there are having difficulty making a living, then there may a more fundamental reason underlying the problem.

    I recall the area as being high elevation and dry, so it may be that it is just not suited to many ag activities, like growing high value crops. People don’t want to hear it, but there are actually places less suited to human settlement (on a long term basis) than others.

    Anyway, I am sure that the fed gov will spend the taxpayer dollars elsewhere ostensibly being saved from closing the Sheep Station. But it would be better to have the money going for recreation, restoration, education or many other purposes, besides subsidizing the Sheep Station.

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