Northeast Idaho Sheep Grazing Stopped to Protect Wild Bighorns

Conservation groups win injunction in Sheep Experiment Station grazing lawsuit

BOISE, Ida. – A federal court in Idaho blocked domestic sheep grazing in bighorn habitat on the Caribou-Targhee National Forest yesterday, ruling that the risk to the South Beaverhead Mountains bighorn sheep population from deadly disease  outweighs any possible benefit to the government-run grazing operation. The court’s order applies to the Snakey Canyon and Kelly Canyon livestock grazing allotments, which overlap with the known home range of the South Beaverhead wild bighorn herd.

“Grazing domestic sheep on the National Forest within the range of wild bighorns is completely irresponsible because of the high risk that livestock diseases will kill off entire bighorn populations,” said Scott Lake, Idaho Director for Western Watersheds Project. “The Caribou-Targhee Forest was unwilling to stand up to prevent the needless and illegal endangerment of native wildlife on our public lands, so we’re thankful that we have a robust legal system to protect our wildlife when government agencies fail to do their job.”

The University of Idaho’s domestic sheep graze the allotments free of charge under the auspices of the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station in Dubois, Idaho. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, has attempted to close the station multiple times, but it has been kept alive by regional politicians who refuse to acknowledge the station’s woeful fiscal deficit, crumbling infrastructure, and scientific irrelevance.

“[T]he risk to the bighorns is potentially catastrophic and could affect the other nearby herds,” the court’s order stated. “[T]he balance clearly tips in favor of … preserving the iconic Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, … given the potential for extirpation,” and “the minimal effect this will have” on “research for the public and the commercial sheep industry as a whole.”

“Put simply, the sheep station has outlived its usefulness,” said Greg Dyson, Wild Places Program Director for WildEarth Guardians.  “It exists to support an industry that’s been declining for years because of lack of demand, and the taxpayers should stop subsidizing its research, which needlessly endangers native wildlife including bighorn sheep and grizzly bears.”

Domestic sheep carry bacteria that cause a deadly form of pneumonia in wild bighorns.  A single nose-to-nose contact between the species may wipe out entire herds of bighorn sheep, and given the curiosity bighorns show toward their distant domestic relatives, such contact is surprisingly frequent.

According to the court, “It is the proximity between the domestic sheep grazed on the Snakey and Kelly Canyon allotments to the South Beaverhead population that demonstrates likelihood of irreparable harm. Even with flawless execution of [best management practices], there is no way the Sheep Station or Forest Service can ensure that domestic sheep will not wander, and that South Beaverhead rams will not make forays on or near the allotments while the large herds of domestic sheep are grazing.”

“The Forest Service is well aware of the high likelihood of disease transmission between the domestic sheep and wild bighorn on these allotments, but it argued that it doesn’t matter if the South Beaverhead bighorn population dies out,” said Laurie Rule, senior attorney with Advocates for the West, who represented the plaintiffs. “It does matter. It matters to the public, to wildlife advocates, and it matters under federal law. We’re very pleased that the court agreed.”

Under yesterday’s court order, the Forest Service cannot allow domestic livestock on the allotments this fall and winter as it had previously authorized.


  1. Kirk Robinson Avatar
    Kirk Robinson

    This is great news. I hope we can terminate some sheep grazing permits in the Uinta Mountains here in Utah.

  2. Rita k Sharpe Avatar
    Rita k Sharpe

    Yes ,indeed, some good news.

  3. Mike Bickley Avatar
    Mike Bickley

    Great news with the added benefit that it will also keep sheep out of some wonderful grizzly and wolf habitat.

    1. J K Dubois Avatar
      J K Dubois

      The Snakey Kelly canyons allotments are neither grizzly bear nor suitable wolf habitats.

      1. Ken Cole Avatar

        You are correct in saying that these allotments are not currently grizzly habitat, but to say that they are not suitable would be incorrect. Especially if you base suitability on whether they are historic habitat, which they are.

        With regard to wolves, however, I’m reasonably certain that wolves frequently use these allotments.

  4. timz Avatar

    “but it argued that it doesn’t matter if the South Beaverhead bighorn population dies out,”

    If a Forest Service employee or rep actually said this they should be fired immediately.

  5. Bob Kuhnert Avatar
    Bob Kuhnert

    This is wonderful news. Now we have a case on the books that can hopefully be used in other states like Colorado where the forest service and the sheepmen are way too cozy with each other.

    1. timz Avatar

      “where the forest service and the sheepmen are way too cozy with each other.”

      Like on Brokeback Mountain?

  6. randall fischer Avatar
    randall fischer

    You’re correct about the twisted behavior. Yes its difficult to understand how those relationships are fostered. Sheep don’t make a nickle for the forest service so clientelism is hardly an excuse for the FS to lay in that bed. Why are wildlife management efforts thrown away in front of sheep? The wildlife managers battle to restore abused species, we all spend a stack of cash on reintroduction of sheep, then celebrate hard won success, all to sue the FS?

    How screwed up is that! How does this even happen? What is the hierarchy here and how does the FS get away with forcing a lawsuit, I mean there is no penalty for G10 misbehavior, right? Is there a penalty for failing to manage our forest?

  7. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Glad to read this. There’s so much encroachment/attack on the natural world, it’s difficult to keep up with it all – but these animals are one of the most iconic and beautiful of our nation.

  8. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    This was an interesting program about the tusks, horns and other means that animals have developed to protect themselves and attract mates.

    There’s an interesting part at the end where it says that tusks and horns are getting smaller due to pressure from trophy hunting taking the biggest:

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