Judge holds USFS in contempt over bighorn sheep reports
March 3, 2016
Tom Vilsack, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Tidwell, United States Forest Service Chief and the U.S. Forest Service are being held in contempt of court for using illegal documents for sources in the decision to ban domestic sheep and goats from the Shoshone National Forest in Wyoming in order to protect wild bighorn sheep from deadly diseases.
North American Packgoat Association's (NAPgA) attorney Andy Irvine, said, "We're very happy with the outcome, it acknowledges the Forest Service's error using the science they did use. That's positive. We are optimistic that the ruling will eventually affect the Forest Service's policy on the Shoshone,"
After a suit filed in June of 2015 by NAPgA and the Idaho Wool Growers Association, a ruling was made Feb. 23 by Chief Judge B. Lynn Winmill, of the District of Idaho. It was found that the Shoshone Risk Analysis of Disease Transmission (RADT) Committee produced a report for the area that copied two Payette National Forest RADT reports that were ruled unlawful. In 2009, they were thrown out, and ordered to never be referred to in any future agency decisions.
The Idaho Wool Growers were also the plaintiff in the Payette National Forest case. The decision to ban sheep from that particular area was made without any input from the public. None of the committee meetings or records were open to the public and the committee was not evenly balanced, including only groups selected by the Forest Service.
“We’re very happy with the outcome. It acknowledges the Forest Service’s error using the science they did use. That’s positive. We are optimistic that the ruling will eventually affect the Forest Service’s policy on the Shoshone.” Andy Irvine, North American Packgoat Association’s attorney
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Consequently, the Forest Service was found in violation of the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) and the National Forest Management Act (NFMA). Now IWG is partnering with the NAPgA in its fight to protect the Shoshone National Forest from the same demise.
"Their role was to protect the order they got from the federal judge back in 2009 which prohibited the Forest Service from using those reports from the Payette National Forest. The Idaho Wool Growers spent a lot of time and effort in getting the order and then to discover later that the Forest Service was still using them. They wanted to make sure it stopped," Bill Myers, Idaho Wool Growers attorney said.
According to Myers, even after proving the reports used to ban sheep from the Payette National Forest were faulty, the Forest Service was still able to reduce grazing in that particular area by 70 percent. USFS took a new approach and produced quantitative reports. Consequently, the Idaho Wool Growers challenged this and are still waiting on the Ninth Circuit Court to rule on their appeal.
Closely following this case, when the 2012 Shoshone reports were released, the NAPgA used every opportunity to point out the similarities between the Shoshone report and the unlawful Payette Reports, to no avail, as the revisions to the Shoshone Land Management Plan (LMP) to ban sheep and goats were carried through. NAPgA and the Idaho Wool Growers then had no choice but to file suit against them.
"They didn't even want to talk about this particular lawsuit or anything. In fact, in one of our meetings, our attorney was ready to talk about it and they totally ignored and brushed it aside and said 'We're not gonna talk about this,'" NAPgA president Charlie Jennings said.
Before being found guilty, the USFS claimed that the reports were in "no way connected" to the Payette reports. They also claimed that after reviewing both sets of reports, they "found no evidence to support" NAPgA's conclusion that the Shoshone reports were developed from the Payette reports.
Faced with litigation however, the USFS admitted that they had referenced the old reports, but argued that based on their own interpretation of the 2009 court order, the use was legitimate.
Still, Judge Winmill found the USFS guilty of ignoring his previous court order. While no decision has been made in terms of the ban from the National Forest, the USFS is to compensate both NAPgA and the Idaho Wool Growers for all costs associated with the current case. There will still be a status conference with all involved parties to discuss potential revisions to the Shoshone LMP.
"I think he wants to give the Forest Service the opportunity to go back on it's own and correct the errors that happened the first time," Irvine said.
Both the NAPgA and the Wool Growers are hoping that the status conference will lead to compromises between all parties and agreements on a way to share the use of the National Forest.
"What we'd like to do is just have them be fair. We proposed a number of ways which we would compromise to be able to give them the complete assurance that we were not going to affect the herd of bighorn sheep, and I think that they need to be fair and give us the consideration of allowing those limitations to go in the forest," said past president of NAPgA, Larry Robinson.
The NAPgA leaders believe that setting strict health tests and possibly even creating a hiking corridor for people who use goats as pack animals would resolve the bulk of the problem. With the small number of people that actually participate in goat packing, it would be very easy to control.
"One of the relevant issues here is that there are very, very few people actually doing this sort of stuff because it is fairly demanding. The number of visits is dismally small and, even if there was a risk, which we don't believe there is, that the risk is absolutely, almost negligible," Robinson said.
According to Jennings, there are approximately 50 goat packers in the Shoshone Forest and probably less than ten of them are hiking, packing or camping in bighorn sheep country. Even if they were to be in the area the bighorn sheep occupy, there is little proof that pose any sort of threat as the goats generally do not leave the hikers' sides.
Jennings also said there is other research that suggests that health issues and lambing rates in bighorn sheep herds are related directly to selenium deficiencies. This research needs to be taken into the USFS considerations when creating LMPs and banning sheep and goats from grazing in National Forests.
"When we start talking about die outs and the other things, well they can't link them to anything, they can't link them to goats, sheep or anything else. It's not a simple equation, there's a lot of variables and to throw goats out of the forest is nonsense because ten years down the road someone will say, 'That didn't seem to make much difference, I guess we were wrong,' you know, that's crazy," Robinson said.
While NAPgA is the main party affected this particular case, Wyoming Wool Grower's Association have been involved and are tracking it with the Idaho Wool Growers. The majority of the sheep grazing allotments have already been bought out in the Shoshone forest, so banning domestic sheep will hardly affect the sheep operations in the area.
Still, all the groups involved are joining together to not only protect their own industries, but neighboring ones as well. Most find this as a big movement in the battle against the federal agencies and public land disputes.
"We are certainly pleased that the judge told the Forest Service that they cannot violate his orders because like I said, we spent a lot of time and effort in getting those orders, so that's certainly good," Myers said.