Controversial USDA Sheep Experiment Station in Idaho to Remain Open
Western Watersheds Project
Wild Earth Guardians
July 25, 2018
DUBOIS, ID. The USDA has released a long-awaited decision on the fate of the agency’s controversial Idaho Sheep Experiment Station, an aging facility that conducts research benefitting private domestic sheep producers at the expense of taxpayers and native wildlife. Under this decision, management of the facility and associated grazing allotments will continue without adopting any measures to increase its compatibility with land health or wildlife habitat.
“The U.S. Sheep Station is yet another handout to the domestic sheep industry that causes substantial harm to our wildlife and wild places. It’s way past time to put this part of our public lands to better use,” said Greg Dyson of WildEarth Guardians.
The Sheep Station, located in the Centennial Mountains along Idaho’s border with Montana, obstructs a critical east-west wildlife corridor between the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the mountains of central Idaho, fragmenting populations of large carnivores and preventing bighorn sheep from reestablishing in their native high-elevation historic habitats. The facility also puts predators including grizzly bears, wolves, foxes, and wolverines at risk of retaliatory killing following predation incidents. Recreationists, including hikers and hunters, are banned from accessing most public lands managed by the Sheep Station.
The decision also includes a plan to reopen the Snakey Canyon and Kelly Canyon domestic sheep grazing allotments on the Caribou-Targhee National Forest following a separate NEPA analysis. These allotments were suspended in 2017 following a successful legal challenge brought by Western Watersheds Project and WildEarth Guardians. “Domestic sheep grazing was halted in Snakey Canyon and Kelley Canyon because the Sheep Experiment Station had no way to graze their sheep safely, without severe risk of transmitting diseases likely to wipe out the imperiled South Beaverhead bighorn sheep herd,” said Melissa Cain, Bighorn Conservation Director for Western Watersheds Project.
In that case, the judge ruled that “[T]he risk to the bighorns is potentially catastrophic and could affect the other nearby herds.” Bighorn sheep were wiped out during the era of Western settlement, as Old World pathogens carried by domestic sheep were transmitted to native bighorn sheep. By the early 1900s, bighorns had vanished from several states, with only a few thousand remaining from an estimated historic population of 1.5 to 2 million. Following more than six decades of extensive and costly restoration efforts, bighorn sheep have now been recovered to approximately 5% of their historic populations, and exist on roughly 10% of their historic range. “Pneumonia caused by livestock pathogens continues to devastate bighorn herds, which remain small, physically and genetically isolated, and at high risk of extirpation,” said Dyson. “Despite a 2015 study that found that the Sheep Station’s research activities did not require the use of bighorn sheep habitat, USDA and sheep industry officials have resisted efforts to relocate the facility and repurpose existing structures to study sage grouse, fire, or other research needs that would actually benefit the public.”
The outdated facility has been targeted for closure by both Democratic and Republican administrations, including the Obama and Trump administrations, due to the high costs of maintaining the facility for an industry facing decades of declining consumer demand. But last-minute efforts by sheep industry lobbyists and Idaho Representative Mike Simpson have repeatedly scuttled plans to return the Centennial Range to wildlife and recreational uses.
Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan's Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of "Hiking Idaho." He also wrote "Beyond the Tetons" and "Backpacking Wyoming's Teton and Washakie Wilderness." He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.
8 Responses to Controversial USDA Sheep Experiment Station in Idaho to Remain Open
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The Centennial Mountains are a critical linkage corridor between Yellowstone and central Idaho wilderness. Grizzlies and wolves require the corridor to exchange genetic diversity between populations. Having sheep creates a huge distraction for migrating predators, resulting wolves and grizzlies being removed from the population. There are over 6 million domesticated sheep in the US. Grizzlies and wolf numbers are diminished to 1 to 2 % of there original population and habitat.
Such hypocrisy from our sycophantic kongressional delegation ! The sheep station — indeed the entire sheep industry in the U.S. — is a money losing environmental disaster, yet our parasitic politicians continue pandering to them.
Supposedly, the sheep station was established to facilitate research on “high elevation grazing”, but a literature search a few years ago by Tom Pringle couldn’t turn up a single paper, or even key word referencing high elevation grazing. As I recall everything they were doing was related to nutrition, fertility, etc. — research that could be done ANYWHERE.
And IMHO, in the unlikely event you could convince me that the federal government should be funding such projects AT ALL, they most certainly could and should be carried out at sites where the costs (both environmental and economic) aren’t so extreme.
“Grizzlies and wolves require the corridor to exchange genetic diversity between populations.”
Thank you for saying this, JohnR. And people have to literally stand in the way of it. I feel bad for the livestock as well.
While this is an important piece of the connectivity puzzle, wolves do NOT need this corridor as they have already successfully moved between central Idaho and GYE on several occasions. As for grizzly bears; it is probably more critical as a connector for them. I hope that the Sheep Station can be eliminated and this area returned to recreationists and wildlife.
They may not ‘need’ it (in our estimation, of course), but why can’t they have it? The sheep station isn’t needed either, and it just presents another opportunity to shoot wolves and grizzlies for conflict with human interests as they move about. I think people occupy enough of the land.
As I stated in my first post: “I hope that the Sheep Station can be eliminated and this area returned to recreationists and wildlife.”
I would say ‘I hope that the sheep station can be closed, and the area returned to wildlife and then recreationists’.
disgusting but typical!