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 and conducts studies on 1,800 sheep that graze public lands part of the year.
According to Jeff Siddoway, sheep rancher and state senator representing Clark County, Idaho, home to the sheep station, costs for 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 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. ❖