Lawsuit challenges sheep grazing in Gravelly Mountains

In a second attempt to eliminate public-land grazing in the Gravelly Range, a Bozeman-based wildlife group is suing the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest.

On Thursday, the Cottonwood Environmental Law Center filed a lawsuit alleging that the U.S. Forest Service is violating the Endangered Species Act and National Forest Management Act by allowing 8,000 domestic sheep to graze in the Gravelly Mountains. The lawsuit was filed in the Missoula federal district court on behalf of the Gallatin Wildlife Association.

The plaintiffs claim that allowing domestic sheep to graze on the national forest, especially in a wild area near Yellowstone National Park like the Gravelly Range, endangers grizzly bears and wild sheep.

Grizzly bears in the Yellowstone area are still endangered, but as their numbers have increased, they are ranging farther outside the park. A few bears that encountered domestic sheep on public land in the Centennial and Gravelly mountains in the past few years have been killed by sheep herders.

Bighorn sheep are not endangered, but populations are struggling to survive throughout Montana. In some cases, herds have been decimated by disease that can be transferred from domestic sheep.

GWA president Glenn Hockett said the Gravelly Mountains would provide ideal wild sheep habitat if not for the grazing allotments.

In 2012, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks set a goal to establish five new bighorn herds by 2022. But biologists have not been able to find new areas that are far enough away from domestic herds. FWP has set a range of 14 miles between domestic and wild sheep to avoid transmission of disease.

The problem is usually not large ranches. Instead, it’s people who keep a handful of sheep as a hobby without understanding the threat to wild sheep.

For example, FWP has proposed transplanting wild sheep to the Bridger Mountains but landowners within the 14 mile radius to the west don’t want to add wildlife-proof fencing.

In the meantime, FWP tries to keep herd populations down in some areas, claiming larger populations carry a greater risk of disease. Last year, biologists wanted to ship wild sheep out of state, but the FWP commission rejected that.

On Thursday, the commission approved the latest experiment. FWP will eliminate the 18 or more members of the struggling Tendoy Mountain herd and introduce new animals to restart that population.

GWA member Bill Mealer said new animals should be introduced to the Gravelly Range instead.

“Domestic sheep in the Gravelly Mountains are an impediment to the recovery of bighorn sheep and Yellowstone grizzly bears,” Mealer said. “The Gravelly Mountains are historic bighorn sheep habitat. It’s time to restore bighorn sheep to Bighorn Mountain.”

In 2009, the GWA unsuccessfully tried to challenge the Gravelly allotments as the Beaverhead-Dillon National Forest was finalizing its management plan.

However, the Gravelly Mountains, along with the Tendoy and Tobacco Root mountains, are also historic strongholds of sheep ranching in Montana, according to Beaverhead-Deerlodge Forest documents.

Over time, ranchers have given up on grazing public land and vacated their allotments or sold them to the National Wildlife Federation, which has a program to buy ranchers out.

Montana Wool Growers Association attorney James Brown said only two ranches run by the same family still use the Gravelly Mountains. One is the Helle Rambouillet Ranch that provides wool for the Duckworth Wool Company.

Brown said he thinks the lawsuit will fail, but if an injunction is granted in the meantime, it could disrupt the family’s operation.

It’s an additional hurdle for a ranch in a struggling sheep industry that has seen much of the market go overseas to Australia and New Zealand.

“They’re concerned,” Brown said. “The Helle’s have worked cooperatively with (the agencies) on both bighorn and grizzly management, and now this challenges their livelihood. It seems like the more we cooperate, the more it sets us up for things like this.”

Brown said the Montana Wool Growers Association would likely file as an intervenor on behalf of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest.

“Things like this make it difficult for us to work with wildlife agencies, which we have been willing to do,” Brown said.