Letters from the West

New study undercuts case for keeping sheep station mountain range

Idaho's Republican congressional delegation, led by Rep. Mike Simpson, put off for another year the decision by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research to close the Sheep Experimental Station near Dubois in Eastern Idaho.

But talks designed to find a way to keep the station, which has operated since 1915, open have failed to find a solution. The main stumbling block is the same one that led the Department of Agriculture to put the station on the chopping block: sheep grazing on the 16,000 acres high mountain range in the Centennial Mountains.

These high mountain meadows are in the major wildlife corridor between the Great Yellowstone Ecosystem and the Salmon-Selway ecosystem that is Idaho's wild heart. Bighorn sheep still survive here, and grizzly bears depend on this area for survival and, eventually, connections with other populations.

It is not an exaggeration to say this among the most important pieces of unprotected wildlife habitat in Idaho and the Northern Rockies. the Idaho Woolgrowers, the Idaho Farm Bureau, the University of Idaho, congressional delegation staff other ag groups and the Wild Sheep Foundation tried to find a solution that recognized the domestic sheep industry needs, helped bighorn sheep and kept the critical economic mission in the tiny community of Dubois.

But in the end the sheep industry was not ready to allow the high mountain range to be closed, citing its critical role in research. But the conservation groups, whose lawsuits have cost USDA $1.5 million over the last few years and led to the closure proposal, aren't ready to budge either.

They say they can support a new mission for the Sheep Experimental Station, but not one that includes grazing in the upper range. And they released a report this month saying it wasn't necessary.

A review of research conducted over the past 15 years found that the Sheep Station’s use of high-elevation pastures has been largely irrelevant to studies involving domestic sheep done by the government scientists.  Sterling Miller of Dunrovin Ranch and Research recently analyzed all 144 peer-reviewed studies that Sheep Station researchers produced from 2000 to 2015 for the National Wildlife Federation.

"We found only three of the publications were based on work conducted in the wildlife conflict pastures, and all of these could have been conducted at other sites not on lands currently controlled by the (sheep station)," Miller wrote. "Those three studies were short-term studies on sheep impacts on the high-elevation pastures.

The analysis shows the high pastures are merely a source of summertime forage for the sheep used in research, Miller said.

"It’s not at all clear that the sheep station can survive its budget-driven problems,"said Tom France, the National Wildlife Federation's senior director of western wildlife conservation. "But if it does, it’s quite clear that there’s no need to operate the facility in ways that continue to undermine conservation of grizzly bears, bighorn sheep and other wildlife."

At a time when Congress is making deep cuts in programs across the board, redirecting money back to the sheep station without a full consensus appears unlikely. Simpson, a member of the Appropriations Committee, may be able to keep it alive now, but a long term solution will have to take the bighorn and grizzly into account.