Sheep Experiment Station will Close!

Bighorn sheep, and much other wildlife will benefit-

In a big surprise, including to the now unhappy Idaho congressionals, Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack has told Congress he will close the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station (USSES) near Dubois, Idaho. The station covers 16-thousand acres of summer grazing in the Centennial Mountains — on the Continental Divide (CD) in Idaho and Montana. USSES headquarters office is on a 28,000 acre facility six miles north of Dubois. This 28,000-acre sheep station (a name similar to a ranch) has offices, a laboratory, residential buildings, lambing facilities, and dry-lot facilities for research. It also has land for spring and fall grazing.

The U.S. Sheep Experiment Station was established in 1915 by President Woodrow Wilson. He withdrew the acreage from the public domain to function as a rangeland grazing and sheep breeding research facility.

Western Watersheds Project and many other conservation organizations have long been critical of the use of the closed to the public, public land for this facility. As our readers can see, WWP and three other conservation groups are currently suing USSES to protect grizzly bears. Critics say the Station conflicts strongly with bighorn sheep (transfer of disease), grizzly bears, and other wildlife that does not naturally mix well with sheep. The location of the lands also serves as a migration barrier to animals that would move along the CD from the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem to vast mountains, backcountry and Wilderness of central Idaho.

Closure of the USSES should, and hopefully will, soon see the lands opened to public access and enjoyment after a century.  This includes some very scenic land on the CD portion of the Station.

The Experiment Station over the years has become more and more a subsidy to Idaho’s handful of large woolgrowers. Earlier they developed several breeds of sheep, including the Columbia, Polypay and the Targhee. Taxpayers subsidize the Station to the tune of about 2-million dollars a year. USSES also grazes three public grazing allotments in the general area (in addition to the Station lands). Taxpayers lose over $200,000 a year on this free public grazing.

The monies spent at the station will reportedly be redeployed to other publicly supported agricultural activities in Idaho. These look like they are not related to livestock.

Congress has 30 days to disapprove of the Secretary’s action. It is hard to see how this can be done in the current, pass-no-legislation Congress, though Idaho’s congressionals say they will try. Why?


Here is the story in the Idaho Falls Newspaper (Post Register).



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  1. Larry Thorngren Avatar

    When I saw the headline, I thought it must be April 1st and Ken Cole had dreamed up another big one.
    This is really good news. Now we have to convince our Senators and Reps that this is a good cost cutting move.
    Getting rid of the subsidy for wool and lamb meat would be an even better tax saving move.
    The woolgrowers and their wooly hordes of domestic sheep (notice I didn’t say “Range Maggots”) have long been one of the main threats to the public land and wildlife in Idaho and other states.
    Idaho Republicans keep saying we need to cut government waste. Here is their chance to do just that.

  2. Richard Avatar

    Now we will have to step up and voice our support of this decision as the Governor and his entourage attempt to keep this arcane “management” regime open.

  3. Dan Lynch Avatar
    Dan Lynch

    The question is, what happens to the land after USSES leaves? Will it be leased to some private rancher? If so, then what has been gained?

    1. Ken Cole Avatar

      I think it should be transferred to Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.

      1. John Meyer Avatar
        John Meyer

        It would be nice to have a well-defined trail run from the Odell Creek trailhead on the Refuge up to the Continental Divide Trail.

        1. Elk375 Avatar

          There is a good trail from the Odell Creek trail head to the Continental Divide. I have ridden it many times. I used to hunting guide in there and have ridden all over the Odell Creek Basin.

          1. John Meyer Avatar
            John Meyer

            The few times I’ve been up there the trail gradually faded out. I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere.

        2. STG Avatar

          I don’t think so. The wildlife (Grizzly bears etc.) will do better without the trail-runners and other recreational groups turning valuable wildlife habitat into another over-used fun park/single track for the just do it crowd.

    2. Larry Thorngren Avatar

      Use it to study the results of leaving it livestock free.
      I live next to some Bureau of Reclamation land next to Cascade Reservoir that used to be part of an overgrazed ranch. The land has been livestock free for 60 years and now supports excellent stands of native grasses.

      1. Ida Lupines Avatar
        Ida Lupines

        Excellent idea – how come that is never studied?

  4. Ida Lupines Avatar
    Ida Lupines

    Is there any oil under there? I hope that this won’t turn into a place for energy development if it isn’t suited for any other human purpose. We already occupy most of the country, we should use what we already have developed for solar and wind, and not continue to destroy and use up habitat. Ideally, it should be a refuge.

    I also hope that any sheep that remain will be treated humanely and not disposed of callously because they are no longer useful to humans.

    1. Larry Thorngren Avatar

      The sheep (Like everything else that belongs to the state of Idaho) will be made available to a group called FOBO for pennies on the dollar. FOBO stands for Friends Of Butch Otter.

    2. JEFF E Avatar
      JEFF E

      lamb chops–in mint sauce

  5. Gary Humbard Avatar
    Gary Humbard

    If it is not transferred to Red Rock Wildlife Refuge then another good option would be to allow ranchers that practice holistic practices such as the J Bar L Ranch lease the land.

    There are a few things we can do as conservationists to make a difference. Financially supporting COs, writing letters, supporting buisinesses that support native species and are conservation friendly, volunteering, spending time on public lands and staying informed.

    1. Ida Lupines Avatar
      Ida Lupines

      That’s a good idea too. Good post!

    2. John Meyer Avatar
      John Meyer

      Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge is currently being grazed by private cattle.

      Cottonwood Environmental Law Center and other groups are in the beginning stages of trying to restore bison to the Refuge. This would be a good place to put Yellowstone bison that would otherwise be slaughtered.

      We hope to work with the J Bar L Ranch and other progressive ranchers in the Centennial Valley that believe cows and bison can coexist.

    3. Ken Cole Avatar

      I take great issue with the romanticized writing in that GYC alert. It appears to be an effort to cover up the very real problems with livestock grazing and make it sound like grazing cattle is innocuous. None of the habitat improvements came from grazing the land, they came from reductions in grazing. “Holistic grazing” is fluffy language that distracts from real issues.

      I’ve also seen some pretty trashed areas on the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge caused by abusive livestock grazing.

      1. Nancy Avatar

        A dated but interesting article on public lands grazing:

      2. STG Avatar

        So well said!GYC= diluted environmentalism/apologist for development.

    4. SAP Avatar

      The sheep station ground is likely too high to be a cattle allotment. Among other reasons, cattle are susceptible to high-altitude pulmonary hypertension, aka brisket disease:

      Also, cows weighing eight times what sheep weigh, they do a lot of damage to those fragile montane/alpine plant communities. Not that sheep don’t do damage, of course . . .

      My 2 cents is, since the administrative status of that land will be an open question, there will be an opportunity to keep it permanently closed to livestock. It won’t be treated the same as a regular grazing allotment in search of new permittees. Pie in the sky, it may be a great opportunity to seek official recognition as a wildland linkage zone.

  6. louise wagenknecht Avatar
    louise wagenknecht

    Back in the ’90s we would go to the Sheep Station’s ram sale in the fall; we bought a Columbia and a Targee ram there. They were sold at auction but the prices were quite reasonable. Often we went just to look & have a picnic. The station is essentially a small company town and reminded me very much of the one I grew up in, with its old houses and streets shaded by white poplars, and kids pedaling around on bikes. On a clear Autumn day when the leaves were golden,it was a trip back in time. I can see an opportunity for it to become a great recreational horse community, with many miles of car-free trails and a place for stables and an indoor arena for winter.

  7. Ralph Maughan Avatar
    Ralph Maughan

    RE: Butch Otter.

    He doesn’t seem so popular with folks here. He really could be beaten this year.

    He had a hard time getting the Republican nomination this year. A tea partier almost knocked him off. The Democrats nominee is moderate and appears able. The Republicans are in disarray. Their state party convention collapsed without electing party officers or even writing a party platform.

  8. Amre Avatar

    I’m just hoping that the forest service closes livestock grazing for good there. It’s great to see the sheep station close, but who can say that they won’t just replace those sheep with private ones grazing on allotments?

  9. Ralph Maughan Avatar
    Ralph Maughan

    There is a fairly long article yesterday in the Idaho Statesman.

    “E. Idaho sheep station could close later this year.” The Associated Press

  10. Ralph Maughan Avatar
    Ralph Maughan

    The likely closure of this facility is a great unexpected windfall for wildlife. The Continental Divide from Yellowstone Park to Central Idaho has always been a potential corridor for the movement of major wildlife from one great wildlands to another, but it has always been severely compromised by the presence of this government sheep ranch.

    For those worried about jobs, Idaho will not lose this money, it appears. Yes, jobs in Clark County will be lost in favor of new jobs in other Idaho counties.

    1. Amre Avatar

      Indeed, central idaho could support hundreds of grizzly bears. I researched it a bit more and turns out FWS studied the possibility of reintroducing grizzlies there back in the 90s. Also, in 2000 they made a final rule allowing for grizzly reintroduction in the bitteroot mountains, but they’ve never gotten around to actually doing it. The yellowstone wolves could definitely use more genetic exchange with wolves in central Idaho. The funny thing is that the conservative lawmakers say they want to stop wasteful government spending but at the same time they want this sheep station and wildlife services to stay funded.

      1. WM Avatar


        You got it partially right. The grizzly reintroduction to N Central ID – called the “Nonessential Experimental Population of Grizzly Bears in the Bitterroot Area of Idaho and Montana” rule was adopted in 2000. It is similar in outline and implementation form to the – you guessed it- Non-Essential Experimental wolf population plan for the NRM under section 10(j) of the ESA, which gives more flexibility for control actions. Bringing in some 25 grizzlies from Canada is, of course, the centerpiece of the proposal.

        I am guessing – and this is the short version- they stared to learn their lesson with the wolf political fiasco, and ID and MT (maybe the Nez Perce tribe is a bit reluctant, too) were not so eager to jump on a bandwagon that would seek as an objective for a restored population of 280-400 grizzlies in this ecosystem, even over a fairly long planning period ranging from 40-100 years. Some environmental groups would want more bears sooner, of course; control actions (and be assured there would be some; maybe a few maulings or near misses) would be controversial, and then there would likely be some effort to keep the bear population at some below carrying capacity level to reduce human conflicts and keep the ranchers and elk/deer hunters happy. And, of course all this was done under the planning efforts of Dr. Chris Servheen, sort of the Ed Bangs of the grizzly world. This program would have cost a lot of money FWS did not have. It would cost more today.

        So, this from the Bitterroot Subcommittee (on Grizzly recovery):
        ++ In June 2001, the Service reevaluated the decision to reintroduce grizzly bears and published a Notice of Intent and proposed rule to select the “Natural Recovery” alternative which allows for protection of grizzly bears that may move into the Bitterroot from other areas, but does not reintroduce bears. Natural movement of grizzly bears into the Bitterroot Ecosystem may occur and would be supported by the Service. Any such grizzly bears would have full protection as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.++

        The final rule from 2000:

        Then they pulled the rule, opting for a natural recovery No Action Alternative in 2001:

        1. JB Avatar

          Key phrase: “Any such grizzly bears would have full protection as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.”

          This can be contrasted with the protection granted bears under the experimental non-essential designation (which, as we’ve seen with wolves, is far less). Moreover, (and I agree with WM here) the “fiasco” created by wolves, politically speaking, likely gave the agency pause. You might recall that an FWS agent was arrested for trespassing and “littering” while darting and collaring wolves, the state of Idaho declared an emergency because of wolves, and also passed legislation that tried to hold FWS liable were someone to be killed by a reintroduced wolf or a decedent of one of these wolves. With grizzlies, a mauling (at least) seems very probable, and I’m sure this played into the calculus.

          1. aves Avatar

            The events you listed happened after the proposal was already withdrawn in 2001. But perhaps you are referring to why the plan hasn’t been re-submitted.

            1. JB Avatar

              Just providing fiasco examples, aves. But you’re right–Conrad Burns’ infamous proclamation that there would be a dead child within a year, and Idaho’s refusal to participate in the reintroduction or subsequent management are examples of events the preceded the withdrawal (along with the suit opposing the reintroduction).

        2. aves Avatar

          I don’t think the “wolf political fiasco” had much to do with the plan’s initial withdrawal. The grizzly plan was withdrawn only 6 years into the gray wolf reintroduction as the first official act by SOI Gale Norton in 2001. Most of the political circus regarding gray wolves had yet to occur by then.

          Clinton ignored similar opposition and let the gray wolf reintroduction proceed in 1998. Had Gore won in 2000, the grizzly reintroduction would have proceeded as well. Instead Bush won and did a political favor for Idaho’s governor Kempthorne, who had insisted the grizzlies would go on a human feeding frenzy.

          1. WM Avatar

            How about the parts having to do with ID resistance to passing laws friendly to wolves, resistance to assuming a designated management role (Nez Perce was the ID management agency then), WS thumping offenders, Yellowstone teeming with wolves and the ID official wolf population rapidly going from 14 in 1995 to 241 by 2001. Ranchers and hunters and ID kept the pressure on.

            This stuff was all playing out by 2000-2001, from what I remember. I agree that the SOI and the election probably had something to do with it as well. Grizzly bear reintroduction to the Bitterroot was not a well thought out proposal at the time, nor do I think it would be today.

          2. WM Avatar


            You are more accurate in your assessment than I (written as I tentatively open mouth to insert foot). Here is a scholarly treatment of the grizzly reintroduction effort (later withdrawn).

            There is perceptible bias in this law review article, with only passing reference to the wolf “fiasco,” when it was written in 2010. ID had objected to the grizzly reintroduction from the start. And, why wouldn’t they, since they were more significantly affected than MT since they were going to get the Canadian grizzlies in their state (sound familiar)? The 2000 rule was adopted anyway.

            Then the political stars aligned after the 2000 election, and importantly ID sued FWS over the plan and a Tenth Amendment Constitutional issue. Subsequently FWS pulled the plug before the litigation progressed very far. Not much mention of the wolf reintroduction experience shaping the decision(but I do suspect the similarity of the topic was discussed a lot around the water cooler in DC, and I did mention writer bias in the first paragraph).


            I will say, however, the local opposition (ID) still centers on federal attempts to get states to buy into poorly thought out federal plans. Remember the NRM wolf EIS didn’t address with any specificity what would happen once the minimum numbers were reached.

            In the case of the grizzly reintroduction to the Bitterroots, the perceived foolishness focused on a Citizen Management Committee (CMC), basically stepping on the toes of the state wildlife agency, and also smacked of some backhanded land use control in critical habitat. That did not sit well with governors or the Legislature. The role of the CMC, and the appointment of members to it was key to the litigation, and remains without judicial interpretation since the rule was dropped without a decision on the merits.

            1. Amre Avatar

              The anti wolf crowd acts like 300 wolves was suppose to be a minimum population when there’s nothing in the recovery plan, EIS, or final rule saying that. As you said WM, the EIS didn’t say anything about how wolves would be managed after recovery goals were met. “Butch” otter and the idaho legislator have also adopted that anti wolf view(just see some interviews and you’ll know.)

              1. Amre Avatar

                Sorry, meant to say “maximum” there.

        3. Amre Avatar

          Thanks for the info, WM.

      2. Barb Rupers Avatar
        Barb Rupers

        Amre, your comment quoted and this response at another site:
        “Yep, not enough salmon and steel head runs anymore, not enough elk and moose, or deer, the damned place isn’t worth hunting anymore, but grizzlies would make it here. Uh huh.. USFWS and the USFS have tried already, and the grizzlies walked back to Wyoming and Montana. They tried reintroducing them under the radar so to speak because if it worked the claim would be they moved in from Wyoming and Montana. I seen them doing this with my own two eyes. I observed grizzlies in Central Idaho in the Sawtooths twice and they were being tracked by some people using electronic gear, and I am not the only guy who did. These outfits like USFWS USFS IDFG are dodgy agencies that do whatever they want and keep it off the public record. No doubt they were releasing wolves here before 1995.”

        I certainly have questions about this report.

        1. Amre Avatar

          I do know of this site, where all the usual anti wolf and anti grizzly arguments are thrown around.

        2. Jay Avatar

          That response sounds a lot like the comments from a poster here that went by the handle Points West. Basically he claimed that grizzlies were being “relocated” by the Park Service by dropping them from helicopters–one of the more ridiculous wives tales uttered on this blog.

          1. Amre Avatar

            They just love to come up with crazy conspiracy theories. People like Tom remington say there was a breeding population of wolves in Idaho before the reintroduction when really there was mo sign of wolves breeding there at the time. No dens found, no howls, and they even claim that these “native wolves” only ate small prey like rodents. NO WOLVES IN THE WORLD LIVE LIKE THAT! There were a few dispersing animals in central Idaho from Canada and NW montana before the reintroduction, but nothing more…

            1. John Meyer Avatar
              John Meyer


              My understanding is that Ethiopian wolves eat only “small” prey. I saw them a few years ago–they appeared to be subsisting on large rats.

            2. alf Avatar

              Amre, have you read “NEVER CRY WOLF”, by the well-known Canadian writer, Farley Mowat, or seen the movie made from the book ?

              According to Mowat, in that book, wolves in the Canadian Arctic do indeed subsist on rodents, apparently for long periods of time.

              (++ “native wolves” only ate small prey like rodents. NO WOLVES IN THE WORLD LIVE LIKE THAT! ++)

        3. JB Avatar

          “I seen them doing this with my own two eyes.”

          Wow, that whole post reminds me of some of the ‘black helicopter’ tales we hear here in Ohio. Covert cougar “introductions” and my personal favorite, dropping rattlesnakes from helicopters with little parachutes. Oh man, I never get tired of that one…

          Suffice it to say: I don’t think you seen what you think you seen. 😉

          1. Jay Avatar

            Sucks to be the guy/gal that has to put the little parachutes on the snakes.

          2. Amre Avatar


        4. WM Avatar

          I gather some remnant of the Bad Bear Blog lives on, eh? And it looks like they are still peeping Tom’s, too, with Maughan envy. 😉

  11. Logan Avatar

    I’m happy with the decion to close the facility. I favor “natural recovery” by dispersal over introduction efforts, the closing of the sheep station will hopefully lead to grizzly migrations to central idaho and increasing bighorn populaitons along the continental divide.

    1. Ida Lupines Avatar
      Ida Lupines

      Sounds like a great idea.


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Ralph Maughan