The federal government’s sheep research station in Dubois has been embroiled in controversy for years over the practice of grazing its flocks in high-mountain habitat near Yellowstone that is important for grizzly bears, bighorn sheep and other wildlife.
The sheep station is in a pickle not entirely of its own making. President Woodrow Wilson created the station a century ago — long before the survival of grizzly bears was much of a concern, much less a national priority.
But things have changed. Predators have been recognized to be an essential part of the ecosystem. Federal and state agencies have invested decades and countless millions of dollars working to recover grizzly bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem. Part of their progress has been identifying and protecting habitat important to the bears, some of which overlaps with sheep station allotments in the Centennial Mountains.
With the sheep station, we have a federal agency and the University of Idaho spending money to graze sheep where other federal and state agencies are spending to protect grizzlies and other wildlife, all with taxpayer dollars.
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Some environmental groups have filed suit to close the station due to conflicts with wildlife. The University of Idaho, in a wise move, has decided not to graze its sheep on the high-mountain habitat this summer while the lawsuit works its way to a decision.
The question is, does the sheep research have to be conducted in the middle of vital grizzly habitat adjacent to the nation’s most treasured national park?
As it turns out, the answer is a resounding no.
A new analysis of research at the station shows none of the government research over the past 15 years relied on the high-mountain grazing areas where domestic sheep conflict with wildlife. The facility’s research on sheep genetics, physiology, plant ecology and other topics could have been done on any rangeland.
The analysis, commissioned by the National Wildlife Federation, found that the controversial grazing areas are useful as a source of forage but not otherwise needed to fulfill the sheep station’s research mission.
This is new information that couldn’t come at a better time for the sheep station and its allies. That’s because the station has a whole new problem that isn’t going to be solved by defending the status quo.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture last year proposed closing the sheep station, moving its research to other facilities — largely as a cost-saving measure to allow the USDA to meet changing priorities with limited funding.
While small by government standards, the station’s payroll is important to Dubois and Clark County. Idaho wool growers want to save the station. The Legislature has expressed solidarity as well.
It scarcely makes sense to save the station from budget cuts just so it can continue its budget-draining fight over wildlife conflicts. As things stand, the surest way to resolve the wildlife conflicts in the Centennial Mountains is for the sheep station to close. But wildlife advocates, including the Idaho and National Wildlife federations, have no quarrel with the station itself — just with grazing in the conflict-prone areas. The Idaho Wildlife Federation is decidedly pro-wildlife, not anti-grazing. We support public land grazing when it is not in conflict with wildlife. This is an instance when the scales should and easily can tilt toward wildlife.
With a commitment to stop grazing sheep in the Centennials, the sheep station would silence many critics and likely win some needed support. Such a move would not affect the facility’s research mission.
But it could set the stage for a sustainable future.
Keith Lawrence is a member of the Board of Directors for the Idaho Wildlife Federation.