Time was purchased for the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station of Dubois, Idaho, when the U.S. Ag Department’s request to close its own research site was denied by the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee earlier this month.
The Ag Research Service arm of USDA had surprised sheep folks across the country when it requested the closure of the station, suggested transferring some of the staff to its Clay Center, Neb., research facility.
Sheep rancher and state senator Jeff Siddoway, Clark County, Idaho, said the appropriations will remain in place to keep the station operating for another year. But there are no guarantees beyond that. “Now we need to add some validity to the station,” he said. The research station is crucial to the success of larger range sheep operators, he said, but the focus of some of the research needs to change to meet the industry’s changing needs.
While genetics and animal health have traditionally been the focus of most of the station’s research, now the industry faces challenges including wildlife, predators and public perception.
“We’ve had bighorn sheep advocates talking to us that said they want to be involved in the research and we think the research station may be the place to do that. We hope to try and come up with solutions where we can both exist instead of battling scientists and getting nowhere and the forest service kicking sheep ranchers off their permits,” Siddoway said. Tensions run high between sheep ranchers operating on mountainous federal lands and wildlife advocates who claim that domestic sheep are infecting bighorns with disease. While Siddoway and other ranchers say the research that has led to these claims was not scientific and was misconstrued, it has already been a catalyst to remove thousands of sheep from a number of federal grazing leases.
“I hope in five to ten years or less that we’ve come up with something to answer the bighorn issue - some ideas to satisfy the forest service and Bureau of Land Management so that instead of removing domestic sheep from these public lands we’ll be able to implement those best management practices and we’ll be able to co- exist with the bighorn.”
Vaccine and treatment research for both domestic and bighorn sheep is one idea Siddoway hopes they’ll address.
Siddoway said the research station’s studies on sage grouse go back 60 years and amount to “truckloads.”
The effects of fire as well as the interactions between the bird and livestock have been researched at length by the Idaho station and Siddoway hopes the studies can not only continue, but be of use to the industry as sheep ranchers continue to seek ways to operate in harmony with livestock.
“The research station has studied it for years and years, they’ve probably got more data than our game and fish,” he said.
Wolves, grizzlies and water quality are more topics in need of study, Siddoway said.
Earlier this month Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson sent a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, expressing disappointment that neither the USDA nor ARS notified Congress of their intent to close the Dubois center. In the letter, Simpson and other western Members of Congress expressed concern that neither agency has explained how research currently underway in Dubois would be continued.
“I’m pleased that we have avoided shutting down the Dubois center for now, but I recognize that this decision does not eliminate the potential threat of future closure of the U.S. Sheep Experimental Station,” Simpson said. “I will continue to work with the USDA, University of Idaho, and members of the sheep industry to ensure the long-term viability of the sheep center at Dubois. It is critical that the sheep industry have a voice in future USDA decisions affecting their economic vitality.”
Siddoway believes that if the station focuses its research on the more current topics of the day, it will gain support from many outside of the sheep industry. “Some of our environmentally-conscious friends will hopefully jump in and show their support. There are an awful lot of those groups that just want to make sure that things are done and one right and allow for diversity out there on public lands and those are the kinds of people we think we can partner with to support the experiment station.” ❖