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Idaho's Bighorns Threatened by Government Sheep Grazing at Experiment Station
Boise, ID – A coalition of environmental and hunting groups filed a lawsuit today against the Caribou-Targhee National Forest, challenging a decision that threatens wild bighorn sheep in eastern Idaho. The decision would expose the South Beaverhead population of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep to deadly disease by allowing domestic sheep grazing on the Snakey Canyon and Kelly Canyon allotments. The U.S.D.A. Sheep Experiment Station manages both of the allotments, and the University of Idaho owns the domestic sheep that graze there.
Western Watersheds Project and WildEarth Guardians joined together in a lawsuit filed by Advocates for the West to stop fall and winter domestic sheep grazing on the forest allotments, which are within the core home range of the South Beaverhead bighorn herd. Domestic sheep carry diseases that would likely extirpate the wild herd. Recent telemetry data shows a very high risk of contact between the animals.
“It’s unjustifiable for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of Idaho are willing to expose wild bighorn to deadly pathogens for the sake of a few months of free forage in the national forest,” said Scott Lake, Idaho director for Western Watersheds Project. “The value of native wildlife far exceeds whatever the state and federal government will get out of taking this chance.”
The U.S. Sheep Experiment Station has been controversial in recent years because it runs at a financial deficit and its value and relevance for agricultural research are limited. Although the USDA has attempted to close the station several times in the past, Idaho’s agricultural industry has persuaded elected officials to intervene, keeping the station open and preserving its large economic subsidies. The Forest Service, for instance, permits the Sheep Experiment Station to graze for free.
“We’ve asked the Forest Service to prioritize the health of the South Beaverhead bighorns, and we’ve specifically asked them not to graze the Snakey Canyon and Kelly Canyon allotments,” said Laurie Rule, senior attorney with Advocates for the West. “That they are going ahead with this anyway suggests they are more interested in keeping the Sheep Station on life-support than protecting Idaho’s native wildlife.”
“The only way to prevent disease transmission is to keep the domestic sheep and bighorn sheep physically separated,” said Sarah McMillan, conservation director of WildEarth Guardians. “The agencies know this. Nevertheless, the Forest Service is planning to keep domestic sheep within the range of the South Beaverhead population for months, even though this bighorn herd is already at risk. It’s one of the smallest populations in Idaho, and this is an unconscionable choice.”
The Forest Service is analyzing the environmental impacts of the Sheep Station’s grazing operations, but it plans to go ahead with grazing on the Snakey Canyon and Kelly Canyon allotments before it completes its analysis. Risking the irretrievable loss of the bighorn population before the analysis is finished violates both federal law and forest policy.
A copy of the complaint can be read here.