Helle sheep will keep grazing

Carrie Stadheim
Four generations of Helles have raised sheep in Montana. Photo by Lisa Surber

The U.S. District Court last week denied a request for an injunction filed by the Gallatin Wildlife Group to stop Helle Livestock from grazing U.S. Forest Service land in Montana.

While the news that his family’s sheep will not be forced off his permit is good, John Helle remains frustrated with the situation. He said the suit will be appealed and that “depending on what the Forest Service comes back with and the judge decides,” it could go on another 16 to 18 months.

“It’s just a waste of taxpayer dollars and our time. It is getting in the way of productive agriculture.”

Helle said his family has a good working relationship with a number of wildlife groups but that radical fringe groups focused on litigation are not worried about the environment. “It’s not the wildlife they care about. It is their pocketbooks and their egos.”

The Gallatin Wildlife Association filed suit last summer against the U.S. Forest Service and defendant intervenors Helle Livestock, fellow ranchers and family members Rebish/Konen Livestock LLP, the American Sheep Industry and Montana WoolGrowers Association.

The organization sought an injunction to keep the sheep off federal grazing land, making several accusations. “They just threw a whole bunch of stuff against the wall to see what would stick,” Helle said.

The GWA claimed the sheep and guard dogs on federal land harmed grizzly bears and bighorn sheep. The 2002 Memorandum of Understanding signed by both the U.S. Forest Service and the Helle family allowing the reintroduction of bighorn sheep about 15 miles from one of the Helles’ grazing allotments was not adequately represented in a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review, they claimed.

The MOU in question is an agreement between the USFS and the Helles, that bighorn sheep re-introductions would not be opposed, and outlined management practices, should the bighorns travel to the grazing allotments. “We said ‘Let’s sign an agreement for separation. You keep them there and we’ll keep ours here.’”

There is no problem with the MOU, just a claim that the document should have been more significantly represented in a NEPA that was conducted in order to gather information to write the 2009 Forest Plan. “There is no real substantive outcome to this lawsuit other than forcing the forest service into doing more process,” said Helle.

While District Court Judge Brian Morris on June 14 declined the request for an injunction, which would have forced the sheep off the allotments on the Gravelly Mountains, he determined that the U.S. Forest Service didn’t adequately reference the MOU in the NEPA analysis and ordered further analysis that will include the MOU.

In other words, the three-inch thick analysis conducted before the current Forest Plan wasn’t enough. “Now they want to add another three inches and 15 to 16 months of analysis to it,” Helle said. “It’s so ridiculously absurd.”

Domestic livestock husbandry and wildlife vitality go hand in hand, Helle said. “We provide lots of wildlife habitat and they operate in the same pattern as us. We all use the same land. These intermountain valleys are so seasonal. We use federal land in the summer but that range is covered in snow so nothing can use it in the winter. The wildlife moves to our private land in the winter, just like our sheep do.”

The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks transplanted 69 head of bighorn sheep to the Greenhorn Mountains in 2004, hoping they would increase to 125. In 2007 the herd numbered 31 but is up to about 55 now, Helle said, adding that for two years criteria have been met so that hunting of the herd might be allowed by 2018.

“Disease is a complex issue. We are not transmitting the disease,” Helle said, of a strain of pneumonia that is the cause of some bighorn deaths. “The pathogens are really endemic, they’ve had die-offs where there are no domestic sheep but they feel like this (blaming domestic sheep) is the easy way around this.”

Because the bighorns are in a different mountain range with a minimum of 15-20 miles between them and the grazing allotments, the two groups don’t even interact, Helle said.

The GWA, according to the Billings Gazette, offered to buy the Helle’s grazing permits, but Helles declined.

“We’re not interested in harming them, but we are interested in resolving this conflict,” the association president Glenn Hockett said in a Billings Gazette story. “The unfortunate thing is, domestic sheep and bighorn sheep cannot co-exist.”

On its website, GWA’s principles include: “Promote the belief that Montana’s fish, wildlife, public lands and water are owned in common and to be shared equally by all its citizens,” and “On public lands, wildlife has priority over livestock, and other consumptive and extractive uses.”

Litigant groups including GWA set their sights on unproductive matters like added agency paperwork that costs taxpayer dollars. “They spend all their time on process and nothing gets done in the forest.” Simple, practical measures like juniper management and rejuvination of aspen would promote bighorn vitality, he said. The junipers steal moisture from grass, and drive off wild sheep. “Bighorns like steep slopes and they like to be able to see so they can watch for predators but these groups who say they are for the bighorns won’t allow logging that would help improve habitat for the bighorns,” Helle said. Ranchers, some five and six generations deep, are the reason the landscape looks healthy and is attractive to the public. “We’ve contributed to this vast countryside and the first thing they want to do is get rid of us,” he said.

Helle said his family has worked with the state game department and wildlife groups to find common ground on bighorn conservation. “We’ve found areas where we can cohabitate both kinds of sheep,” he said.

The bottom line is that the lawsuit is wasting money and threatening sheep production, something that provides economic stability to the community, Helle said. But he doesn’t argue with the judge’s determination that the MOU should have carried more weight in the NEPA analysis. “The three letter word (MOU) got omitted so now we spend more money and deal with the three letter word. We’re disgusted with the process but we do tend to agree with the judge that yes, the MOU is important and it’s something we all signed in good faith.”