Letters from the West

Tough times out there for Idaho's sheep ranchers

This is turning out to be a tough month for Idaho’s sheep ranchers.

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the Labor Department must strengthen its regulations for issuing temporary visas to herders under a program that allows ranchers to pay as little as $750 a month. Sheep ranchers say the program, which has been in place for decades, is crucial because they need people responsible for their sheep in the mountains of the West 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Now the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service has decided it will close down the Sheep Experimental Station near Dubois in Eastern Idaho. The station, which has operated since 1915, has developed breeds of sheep used in the Rockies and has done continuous monitoring of its rangelands, providing a baseline on effects of grazing and interaction with bighorns.

In a June 17 letter to Alabama GOP Rep. Robert Aderholt, chairman for the Appropriations subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration and Related Agencies, Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack said declining and flat budgets underfunded the sheep experiment station to the point where it no longer had enough scientists. What he didn’t say is that the agency has had to spend more than $1.5 million in recent years on lawsuits over the way it manages 16,000 acres of high mountain range in the Centennial Mountains, the main wildlife corridor between Yellowstone and Central Idaho.

I quoted former Yellowstone grizzly research director Dick Knight in my 1993 book, "Saving all the Parts," as saying “Even the birds don’t sing” on the sheep station range, where bears were disappearing. It’s better today but still controversial, especially about bighorns.

Congress has 30 days to pass a resolution opposing the closure. Even if there was a consensus, I doubt they could pass it under current conditions. Remember, this is about cutting the budget. That hasn’t stopped Reps. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, Greg Walden, R-Ore., and Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, from complaining about the decision.

"We were disappointed to learn that ARS has plans to close the US. Sheep Experimental Station in Dubois and frustrated that ARS did not notify Congress or the sheep industry until the decision had been made," Simpson said.

There has been less said about the court decision on the H2A visa program even though it could have greater impacts on the sheep industry. Frank Shirts lambs his sheep in Canyon County and herds them through the foothills in the spring.

He adds the Forest Service’s plans to use the same analysis west-wide that the Payette Forest used to force him and his brother out of Hells Canyon as another one of the threats the industry faces.

“I think every sheep man is ready to quit,” he said as he drove home from a woolgrowers meeting in Reno.

But with lamb prices rebounded, they aren’t going to quit without a fight. Idaho has about 180,000 sheep grazing on its public lands, down from 2.7 million in 1930. But its secondary economic impacts make it an industry the state does not want to lose.

“Everywhere we turn now we get government interference,” Shirts said.