The University of Idaho will forgo sheep grazing at a controversial research station on federal lands in Montana this summer due to an ongoing lawsuit. The University’s general counsel has stated that the school will “await further guidance through the outcome of the litigation and from the federal agencies over the use of the allotments.” This is the second consecutive year that sheep have not grazed the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station in the Centennial Mountains, a critical grizzly bear migration corridor.
“The University of Idaho did the right thing,” said John Meyer, Executive Director of Cottonwood Environmental Law Center and attorney for the groups. “Grizzly bears have defended sheep carcasses and chased University sheepherders in the past. The University of Idaho is justified in favoring the safety of its employees and protecting native wildlife.”
The Centennial Mountains straddling the Idaho-Montana state line are considered to be an important corridor on public lands allowing Yellowstone grizzly bears to move freely into Idaho. In recent years the station has become a hot button issue for federal land management and the focal point of several lawsuits ranging from the illegal killing of a grizzly bear on sheep station property in 2012, to insufficient scientific consideration of vital grizzly bear and bighorn sheep habitat. As litigation continues, the plaintiffs in the case see the University's decision as recognition of the evidence against the USDA.
“The University of Idaho has saved the Sheep Station the time and embarrassment of a court order blocking the summer grazing,” said Ken Cole, Idaho Director for Western Watersheds Project. “Now its time for Idaho’s Congressional delegation to give up the battle for this symbolic but significant government handout to the sheep industry.”
"It is a relief to see this essential movement corridor for grizzly bears rested." Said Bryan Bird of WildEarth Guardians." The sheep research station is an anachronism of a time when the grazing industry enjoyed a monopoly on public lands. Times have changed and the public deserves a say in the management of the lands we own."
Nearly a year ago, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack proposed moving the research to another research facility in Nebraska. The USDA said the recommendation was because of “the lack of resources, both human and financial” at the sheep research site. Congress has yet to fund the Sheep Station for fiscal year 2016.
In November, Secretary Vilsack sent another letter to Congress requesting closure of the facility for environmental concerns and because the Sheep Station is facing $4 million in costs for repairs and maintenance on top of its annual budget of $1.9 million.
“Moving the sheep research to Nebraska will save taxpayers millions of dollars every year and protect important wildlife habitat.” said John Meyer, attorney for the groups and Executive Director of Cottonwood Environmental Law Center.
The four groups suing the U.S. Department of Agriculture over the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station are: Gallatin Wildlife Association, Western Watersheds Project, WildEarth Guardians, and Cottonwood Environmental Law Center.