BOISE, Idaho — U.S. officials and a sheep industry group have dropped their appeals of a court ruling preventing sheep grazing in western Montana and eastern Idaho by a sheep research facility long targeted by environmental groups concerned about potential harm to grizzly bears and other wildlife.
The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals earlier this month granted a request by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station and Colorado-based American Sheep Industry Association to drop the appeals filed earlier this year.
They had sought to overturn a ruling in April by Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald E. Bush that the government hadn’t adequately examined all of the impacts with its 2017 environmental review allowing the grazing.
U.S. officials opted to drop their appeals first and were followed shortly after by the association. The U.S. Department of Justice, which represents federal agencies in lawsuits, didn't respond to a request for comment sent through its online portal.
“We're very disappointed that the feds dropped their appeal on this,” said Chase Adams, senior director with the association. “That's the only facility dedicated to full-time sheep industry research, and the impacts to that facility are huge not just for the U.S. sheep industry, but in other areas of the world that have similar climate and elevation and terrain.”
Grazing was suspended in 2013 following previous lawsuits by environmental groups contending the areas contain key wildlife habitat that is a corridor for grizzly bears between Yellowstone National Park and Glacier National Park. Conservation groups contend grizzly bears have been killed because of sheep station activities.
The groups also say bighorn sheep, which can acquire deadly diseases from domestic sheep, and greater sage grouse use the area.
Grazing resumed following the release of a 2017 environmental impact statement considering the effects of sheep grazing on wildlife.
Western Watersheds Project and the Center for Biological Diversity were among the groups that filed a new lawsuit in early 2019 challenging the government’s decision allowing sheep owned by the University of Idaho to graze in the Centennial Mountains of Idaho and Montana.
The sheep station has two grazing areas in those mountains straddling the two states totaling about 25 square miles.
In the lawsuit, Bush ruled the government hadn’t sufficiently examined the project’s potential effects on grizzly bears and bighorn sheep, and didn’t objectively analyze alternatives. He also ruled that the government had adequately examined the effects of grazing on sage grouse.
He said the government must review the project again in line with environmental laws, and until that review is complete, sheep grazing isn’t allowed in those areas. That means redoing the environmental impact statement, a process likely to take at least two years.
“We’re hopeful that the government will come up with a new strategy and new use for the sheep station,” said Andrea Zaccardi, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Grazing domestic sheep in the Centennials just does not make sense for the wildlife that live there.”
The Agriculture Department has said that the sheep station conducts research on lands ranging from about 5,000 feet to nearly 10,000 feet in elevation.
The Sheep Experiment Station, based near Dubois, Idaho, has not only been targeted by environmental groups but has also been on the federal budget chopping block under the administrations of both President Barrack Obama and President Donald Trump.
Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, who represents the area, has played a crucial role in restoring funding.