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Agriculture Secretary Vilsack Asked to Follow Through With June Proposal to Close 99-year-old USDA Facility
Michael Robinson, Center for Biological Diversity, firstname.lastname@example.org, (575) 313-7017
John Meyer, Cottonwood Environmental Law Center, John@Cottonwoodlaw.org, (406) 587-5800
Travis Bruner, Western Watersheds Project, email@example.com, (208) 788-2290
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo.— Conservation groups sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack today urging him not only to follow through on his proposal to close the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Sheep Experiment Station, west of Yellowstone, but to permanently end sheep grazing on more than 50,000 additional acres of public lands that provide important habitat corridors between the national park and Idaho for lynx, wolves and grizzly bears.
“We fully stand by Secretary Vilsack’s decision to shutter the sheep station,” Said Bryan Bird, Wild Places Program Director for WildEarth Guardians. “It a relic of federal government subsidies for the livestock industry and the majority of Americans value Western public lands for wildlife and recreation not as a feed lot for a fading industry.”
As part of the plan, the organizations asked that the sheep station’s 48,000 acres be transferred to the nearby Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, and that an additional 56,000 acres grazed by the station on Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands be permanently closed to livestock.
“This is great news for Yellowstone’s beleaguered wildlife,” said Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Closing this anachronistic and wasteful USDA facility will provide safer habitat for wolves, grizzly bears, bighorn sheep and other sensitive animals that are part of the fabric of our national identity.”
The Sheep Experiment Station was founded in 1915, during President Woodrow Wilson’s administration, to conduct research aiding the sheep industry. But as noted in Secretary Vilsack’s decision letter, “the unit no longer has the critical mass of scientists.” Furthermore, the sheep station had conducted no environmental review of its activities, as the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act requires for all major federal activities, until it was sued by the Center for Biological Diversity and Western Watersheds Project in 2007. Since that lawsuit was settled in 2008, the sheep station has missed multiple deadlines to document its effects on wildlife, even as other federal and state agencies repeatedly expressed concerns with those impacts.
“The livestock industry needs to face the fact that times have changed,” said Travis Bruner, Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project. “The American public values wildlife corridors and ecological function over economically irresponsible government sheep ‘experiments.’ We applaud Secretary Vilsack’s decision and hope he will stand strong in the face of special interest pressure to reconsider.”
The sheep station grazes its namesake livestock close to the world’s largest aggregation of bighorn sheep, which are at risk from diseases spread by their domestic counterparts.
The sheep station also isolates genetically lynx, wolves and grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park, because the station includes lands such as the Centennial Mountains that form a corridor of habitat between Yellowstone and the wildlands of central Idaho. In 2009 another branch of the USDA, Wildlife Services, killed the eight-member Sage Creek Pack of wolves due to depredations that began with the killing of a single sheep from the sheep station.
In 2012 a radio-collared grizzly bear disappeared, and his cut-off collar was later found lodged under a rock in a stream flowing through the sheep station. Telemetry data and a law-enforcement report revealed that the bear and sheep were in the same place at the same time, and an empty .308-caliber rifle cartridge, which matches the rifles issued to the sheepherders, was recovered from the sheepherders’ camp. The report also says that sheepherders killed two black bears in the same area in 2012.
Cottonwood Environmental Law Center, Western Watersheds Project, WildEarth Guardians and Gallatin Wildlife Association filed a lawsuit in June challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s biological opinion for the sheep station, which erroneously states that no grizzly bear/human encounters have occurred. The groups have documents released through a Freedom of Information Act request that state grizzly bears have chased sheep herders in the past.
“There is no amount of sheep research that can justify putting human lives at risk,” said John Meyer of Cottonwood Environmental Law Center.
WildEarth Guardians, Center for Biological Diversity, Cottonwood Environmental Law Center, Western Watersheds Project, Gallatin Wildlife Association and Yellowstone Buffalo Foundation, signed today’s letter to the secretary of agriculture.