Montana’s Fish, Wildlife & Parks commission has joined other organizations in calling for the end of federally-funded sheep grazing in the Centennial Mountains.
After last week’s marathon FWP commission meeting, the commissioners sent letters to Montana’s Congressional delegation asking them to remove Montana lands from the area managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Experimental Sheep Station.
The Sheep Station is based in Dubois, Idaho, but in the summer, it uses 16,000 federal acres on the Montana side of the Centennial Mountains for sheep grazing.
That’s led to predator conflicts as the grizzly bear population has grown and more bears have wandered west of Yellowstone National Park. Biologists have identified the Centennial Mountains as an important travel corridor for grizzly bears because it connects Yellowstone National Park with large unoccupied wilderness areas in Idaho.
In 2012, the Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Idaho Fish and Game and FWP sent a joint letter to the Sheep Station asking them to find an alternative area to graze sheep. As the states prepare to take over management of the grizzly bear if it is delisted, having to manage bears while protecting Idaho sheep could be an unneeded headache.
“For us, it was more of an issue that those 16,000 acres was closed to recreation and hunting,” said commission chairman Dan Vermillion. “Sheep owned by the state of Idaho – not private sheep, not ranching sheep but government sheep – are being used to limit access for hunters and fisherman.”
Because the sheep belong to the state of Idaho - actually the University of Idaho - they should be grazed somewhere other than Montana, the commissioners said. Their letter emphasizes that the commission is not calling for the closure of the sheep station in Dubois nor does the commission oppose private grazing on federal lands.
“We urge your attention and constructive participation in resolving the Sheep Station's wildlife conflicts in the Centennial Mountains of Montana and in restoring multiple use public access to the federal lands now closed to Montanans by the State of Idaho's domestic sheep,” the letter said.
The letters were mailed about the same time that conservation groups published a report showing that 85 percent of Montana’s wild sheep herds are at risk of disease from nearby domestic sheep. There is a small group of bighorn sheep that use Mt. Jefferson on the east end of the Centennial Mountains adjacent to the ARS East Summer Range and more near the west range.
“Wild sheep would benefit if the grazing was shut down, but that really wasn’t the issue up there for us,” Vermillion said.
Although the commission isn’t calling for the closure of the Sheep Station, the USDA is.
The USDA, specifically the Agricultural Research Service, has been sued a number of times for not conducting proper environmental studies of its effect on wildlife and for the deaths of endangered grizzly bears. Most recently, four groups sued in June 2014 to force the ARS to stop using the Centennial allotments after the USFWS issued a questionable biological opinion that no human/grizzly bear interactions had occurred in the area. Through a Freedom of Information Act request, the groups had learned of at least two incidents between sheepherders and grizzly bears.
For the past two summers while the lawsuit is pending, the University of Idaho has decided against grazing sheep in the Centennial Mountains. Some point to this as evidence that the allotments are not necessary. WildEarth Guardians attorney John Meyer said he and the ARS attorney would be submitting updates to federal District Judge Dana Christiansen by March 9 as to the status of the upcoming grazing season.
"I'm cautiously optimistic that the agency will decide not to graze there this summer," Meyer said.
All the lawsuits come a cost, and in 2014, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack proposed closing the Dubois facility and moving it to Clay Center, Neb., to save money.
While some sheep producers protested that they needed the scientific information provided by a high-altitude environment, it waspolitical push-back from Idaho’s Congressional delegation that forced the budget committee to allot enough funds to keep the sheep station open.
Meanwhile, Vilsack is still working to close the station. In November, he again requested closure of the sheep station for environmental concerns and because the facility needs repairs and maintenance totaling $4 million on top of its annual budget of $1.9 million.
Last year, the National Wildlife Federation took an in-depth look at the sheep station research and concluded high-altitude fields weren’t necessary to the science. In October, the Montana Wildlife Federation joined the NWF and the Idaho Wildlife Federation in calling on their congressional representatives to shut down the grazing allotments.
The commissioners' letter may bring the grazing allotments one step closer to their retirement.