Court rules against sheep producers
March 31, 2016
Grazing allotments for sheep producers in the Intermountain National Forest Region may be facing more changes in the future. The Ninth US Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the United States Forest Service (USFS) regarding the process used to close grazing allotments in the Payette National Forest.
"We clearly see this as a single-use management of multiple-use grounds that go in and manage solely for bighorn sheep, most frequently at the expense of the domestic sheep producers," said executive Director of the American Sheep Industry Association (ASI), Peter Orwick.
The Idaho Wool Growers Association (IWG) originally filed suit against the USFS in 2012 when the allotted grazing area in the Payette National Forest was reduced by 70 percent. The District Court in Idaho ruled in favor of the USFS in 2014. It was later appealed and this is the first time the Circuit Court has ruled on the issue of bighorn sheep versus domestic sheep.
"If they [IWG] had won on the appeal, then it would essentially force the USFS to go back in and redo that entire decision making process. That would hopefully allow more industry involvement because there was little to none. Also, there was little to no interaction with the disease specialists with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA)," Orwick said.
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Although this was one of the main concerns of sheep producers, the Circuit Court found that there was no harm or effect to the USFS decision to disregard the USDA research.
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"We conclude that any error in failing to consult Agricultural Research Service (ARS) was harmless. As the Forest Service did not otherwise act arbitrarily or capriciously or abuse its discretion, we affirm," Circuit Judge, Marsha S. Berzon stated in a court opinion.
Not only was the sheep industry concerned that agricultural organizations were not involved in the decision process, they were troubled by the involvement of environmental groups instead.
"Part of the problem that we had with the Region 4 framework is they admit, in writing, that they developed it in collaboration with the Western Watershed Project to avoid future litigation. So they actually developed the framework with the most anti-livestock grazing organization in the United States, the WWP. That's a concern to us," Orwick said.
The process that led to this appeal and conclusion began as early as 2003 when the concern of disease transmission in relation to domestic grazing sheep was acknowledged. Seven years later, the grazing reduction was implemented in the Payette National Forest and will remain in place after the appeal. The reduction in suitable grazing land in the forest took a large toll on sheep operations in the area.
"These ranches were built over the last 75 to 100 years with Forest Service grazing or BLM grazing for either weeks or two months out of the year. You remove that grazing, then they're no longer a 12 month animal feeding operation. You know, livestock need to eat everyday. So when you do that, it just tears the ranch up, as it did in the Idaho model," Orwick said.
Regardless, the USFS plans to continue with their original management plan in the Payette National Forest. They view the ruling as reassurance in their decision making process.
"The ruling doesn't have a negative effect on our plan of operations. What it really does is affirm that the plan of operations that we have in place right now is the right way to go regarding the grazing of domestic sheep and the habitat of bighorn sheep," said Brian Harris, public affairs officer for the Payette National Forest.
Among the goals of their management plan is the opportunity to continue researching the interaction between domestic sheep and bighorn sheep.
"The plan is still to keep it at the lesser amount of grazing that's available on the National Forest, but then also a very extensive monitoring program, too. That's kind of the key to make it work, really, to have a monitoring program. That will give us the indication of whether domestic sheep and bighorn sheep are co-mingling with each other," Harris said. "Everything that we do, land management-wise, is based on current science."
With close monitoring, the USFS hopes to learn more about the transmission of disease from domestic sheep. This science will help them with future decisions regarding grazing in the national forests all around the region.
"Other National Forests within the Intermountain Region, are in a process right now of determining what their action plan is for domestic sheep versus habitat for bighorn sheep," Harris said.
Now additional National Forests in the region are using this ruling as reinforcement for upcoming action plans. This has sheep producers all around the region nervous. Jeff Siddoway, owner and operator at Siddoway Sheep Company Inc. and Idaho state senator has grazing allotments in the Bridger-Teton and Caribou-Targhee National Forests. As of now, there are no resident bighorn herds around his allotments, however he shares in the concerns of the entire industry.
"Bighorns are mobile, they come and they go, so there's always going to be concern no matter what. Everywhere there's an actual–not even potential–but an actual conflict then the domestics are going to be required to vacate, leave or mitigate in someway," Siddoway said.
In the late 1800s there were approximately two million bighorn sheep in North America. It has since declined to about ten percent of the original count. One factor that scientists believe contributes to the large falloff is disease transmission from domestic sheep.
The Payette National Forest now has two herds of bighorn sheep that are approximately 800 head each. Consequently, the larger buffer between domestic and bighorn sheep has been implemented there.
"On the Payette National Forest we have two herds that have habitat within the National Forest and we have not seen an increase of their numbers at this point. It will take time," Harris said. "If things change in the future, I would expect the plan to change as well."
All parties involved see this issue as an ongoing and ever-changing. Both the sheep producers and USFS plan to stay involved in the issue while management plans are being revised throughout the region.
"I don't see any interest in revisiting any options off of that Payette case, but there's plenty of other targets out there for legal involvement and that will continue for the rest of this year, I have no doubt," Orwick said.
While the court decision on the IWG's appeal was a blow to the producers, they recognize that they need to keep working in order to protect grazing rights within the region.
"We're disappointed about it. I guess we just need to look over all of our options and just try to do the best we can do with what we've been dealt," Siddoway said.