Sheep research station faces closure |

Sheep research station faces closure

Sheep ranchers within the U.S. Forest Service's region four which encompasses Idaho, Nevada, Wyoming and Utah, are being faced with the loss of their grazing leases in order to prevent co-mingling of domestic and bighorn sheep. Wyoming rancher Shaun Sims said the science behind this decision is faulty and that predators and weather are a bigger killer of bighorn sheep than disease transmission from domestic sheep. Photo by Lacee Sims
Lacee Sims |

In late June, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told the U.S. Congress that his agency plans to close the Dubois, Idaho, U.S. Sheep Experiment Station this year.

The station is overseen by the Agricultural Research Station (ARS) and conducts studies on 1,800 sheep that graze public lands part of the year.

According to Jeff Siddoway, sheep rancher and state senator, costs for the the experiment station are going up significantly as they battle lawsuits from anti-grazing groups. The threat of one such lawsuit caused them to lose their winter grazing range, forcing them to buy hay, adding to their financial woes.

Siddoway, who represents the station’s home region of Clark County, quickly set up a meeting with representatives from each of Idaho’s four congressional offices and the governor’s office, July 1. He is hopeful that the proposed closure can be halted. But he and others have identified a need to change the focus of some of the station’s research.

“The Congressional representatives and the governor are solidly on board. I think our chances of saving the station are very good but if we are going to save it under status quo there isn’t much sense. We need to change the focus and the mission,” Siddoway said.

Executive director for the Idaho Woolgrowers, Stan Boyd said value exists in the research station’s history and accumulated knowledge. “In the last 14 years, over 85 research projects have been completed. They cover a wide variety of genetic and proficiency studies. Times are changing and the station knows that. Hopefully they will start doing research based on present day problems such as bighorn sheep, wool, genetics as it relates to disease transmission, and range monitoring.”

South Dakota State University Sheep Specialist Dave Ollila said the station has been instrumental in shaping the type of sheep used in the Northern Plains – Targhee, Columbia, and Polypay breeds all find their origins there. “The rangeland research conducted at the station has been instrumental in helping livestock producers utilize the range resource in a sustainable and conservative manner.” The proposed closure is another example of loss of critical infrastructure that supports western livestock grazing, he said.

Ironically the research station and the western livestock industry as a whole are under attack by environmental groups led by the anti-public lands grazing Western Watersheds group. Allegations of disease transmission between domestic and wild bighorn sheep is one issue they deal with.

But Siddoway said the research station is the perfect testing ground. “We know in the vicinity of the experiment station there is a population of bighorn sheep and domestic sheep have been there for decades, so that makes that a test tube type of example that we could use to do some research.

“We brainstormed various scenarios and decided it was worth making the effort to change the focus and maybe the mission of the research station,” Siddoway said. Rather than “doing what they’ve always done,” the station could address today’s biggest threats to the sheep industry, which he said are grizzly bears, wolves, interaction with bighorn sheep, sage grouse protection and range monitoring.

Sandy Miller Hayes, ARS spokesman from Maryland said Congress has 30 days, starting June 17, to comment on the proposed closure. “Upon congressional approval we would provide re-assigment letters to employees,” she said, emphasizing that the action is “just a proposal.” She said some members of congress have already commented. The closure was proposed in an effort to re-direct limited funds to “higher priority” research efforts in Clay Center, Neb., at the Meat Animal Research Center. The proposal is to transfer ongoing sheep genetics research there.

Besides the closure of the research station, the sheep industry across the west faces continued litigation from anti-grazing organizations seeking to halt sheep grazing on public lands.

Both Siddoway and Evanston, Wyo., sheep rancher Shaun Sims said that the so-called Payette Decision is affecting the West’s sheep industry in a huge way.

“Western Watersheds sued the Forest Service over bighorn sheep and domestic sheep contact and the concern over disease transmission,” Sims said. “They didn’t use complete science but they won the case.” As a result of the lawsuit focused on sheep in the Payette National Forest of west central Idaho, the U.S. Forest Service is now attempting to apply the “Payette Principles” across Region Four: Nevada, Utah, Idaho and Wyoming.

“Complete removal of sheep anywhere that there is a risk of contact with bighorn sheep,” is the government’s solution, Siddoway says. “Right now the Forest Service is completing the risk analysis, and the idea is that they will remove all sheep producers in the bighorn sheep range.”

The ranch Sims and his family have operated for over a century in Southwest Wyoming is on the “front line.” He and his neighbor would be the first ones impacted by the decision, if it goes region-wide. About 70 percent of the sheep, or 10,000 head in the Hells Canyon area of Idaho have already been forced off their grazing leases, causing several ranchers to exit the business.

The bighorn herd closest to the Sims’ family ranch was reintroduced on Forest Service land in the late 1980s, he said. “There were three domestic sheep permits that had to be reverted back to the forest, in order for that to happen.” Sims said he has a 25 year old letter from the Forest Service, stating that “there would be no impact or removal of any more domestic sheep,” after that bighorn reintroduction. “And now they are looking at a risk analysis and going to make a decision about whether to remove those sheep or change the class of livestock.” But the range isn’t suitable for cattle grazing, Sims said, and very little alternative grazing exists for himself or other displaced sheep ranchers.

About another 10,000 sheep would be removed from grazing leases in the Wasatce Cache National Forest and Ashley National Forest in his backyard, following the risk analysis and possible implementation of the “Payette Principle,” Sims said.

The study that led to the litigation and legal decision was “not complete science,” according to Sims. Bighorn sheep were placed in contact with domestic sheep contracted pneumonia and most died. “They confined wild bighorn sheep in pens. They were highly stressed.” Sims said that many scenarios, such as swabbing an infected sheep and placing the swab in a bighorn’s throat and injecting a bighorn with domestic sheep’s blood would never happen in the wild. “We feel the judge didn’t understand the science and we view it as faulty science,” he said.

The disease problem is “endemic” in the wild, he said, explaining that often sheep that die from pneumonia have not been in contact with domestic sheep for months or even years. “Of course spring is the hardest time on wild animals because they are in poor body condition. This is when they would be more prone to being overwhelmed by the disease and this is when most of them died.” Sims said a USDA ARS veterinarian, Dr. Knowles reported that the science is “unclear” regarding whether or not domestic sheep are to blame for passing the disease to the bighorns.

In a June 16 letter to Wyoming Senator John Barrasso, Wyoming state veterinarian Jim Logan explained that the forced co-mingling of bighorn and domestic sheep in small pens is an entirely different scenario than casual contact on the range and should not be expected to deliver the same results. “Experimental contact studies are un-natural and do not adequately simulate actual range conditions, but they do create conditions much more conducive to disease transmission and causing stress.” he said. “Only a fraction (approximately 20 percent) of the bighorn sheep populations that had a pneumonia outbreak in 2009-2010 had known domestic sheep or goat contacts and the event of a contact alone does not confirm that contact caused the disease outbreak,” he said.

“Of all the threats we’ve had in the sheep business, this is probably the biggest,” Sims said, whose family has grazed the same forest permits for over 40 years. “We would lose two forest permits and my neighbor would lose all of his permits.” His family’s operation, which has operated for six generations, now consisting of himself, his dad and his brother and their immediate families would be cut in half, Sims said. He believes his neighbor would be out of the sheep business if the Payette Decision is enforced on their property.

A “vibrant sheep industry” exists in southwest Wyoming, Sims said, and according to ASI studies, 23 percent of the nation’s sheep graze public lands at some point. “If 23 percent of this industry goes away it will have a big impact on sheep shearers, feeders, processors. Our industry has already declined to a fraction of what it was. People need to understand that this isn’t going to end with sheep. The Western Watersheds Project has a goal of removing all grazing from federal lands, they are just using litigation,” Sims said.

By removing grazing from federal lands, the taxpayers will have to foot the bill to replace the lost lease payments, Sims said. “If we see an increase in forest fires it will get real expensive,” he added. “Fighting fire is not cheap and grazing is a cheap way to mitigate that fire potential. By grazing we are harvesting a resource that is renewable and, if not harvested, it actually becomes a hazard.”

Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project Travis Bruner of Hailey, Idaho., said the group does not have a proposal for replacing lost grazing fees on federal lands but that they would like to see grazing fees raised to at least 15 times their current level. “Some permittees would opt not to pay that rate,” he said, and their goal to end livestock grazing would be accomplished.

Bruner is not worried about fire. “I think its complex, the way that wildfire works on public lands… but the idea that grazing is going to reduce fire is a misguided idea.

“Grazing can in fact increase the frequency of fire because of the way livestock are vectors for invasive species that burn at higher rates than other grasses,” he said.

The group recently filed a complaint claiming the research station’s final grazing lease should be revoked in order to prevent them from putting grizzlies and other predator’s “in harm’s way.” They urge that no grazing be allowed while the studies are conducted.

Siddoway echoed Sims’ concerns.

“Our entire Region Four is now subject to that Payette Principle,” he said. When he and the other leasees discussed their annual management plans with the Forest Service, they were told that if bighorns were sighted, the domestic sheep had to be far enough away so as to eliminate the chance of co-mingling.

“If they enforce those Payette Principles in all those areas, we’ll have more and more sheep moved off,” said Siddoway. “And I don’t know what the answer is. Western watersheds, their answer is zero domestic sheep. Is that what we want? Is there anyplace at all that we can still run sheep in Idaho? Do we get to survive or are we going to get pushed right off of the face of the earth?”

Many rural communities rely on sheep, Siddoway points out. “We send enough lambs to keep one of those packing plants in California or Colorado going for about 10 days. The wool business creates jobs and opportunities for people,” Siddoway said.

“For those of us that have been in this business for 125 years like my family, it seems pretty unjust.”

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