For nearly a century, the Department of Agriculture’s Sheep Experiment Station has grazed over 6,000 sheep on 100,000 acres of public land in Montana and Idaho west of Yellowstone National Park. Yet the research center has never formally assessed its ecological impact on this mountainous habitat for native wildlife species.
This month, in response to a
lawsuit, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) finally agreed to do
The research station -- whose mission is to find ways
to increase meat and wool production as well as enhance the
ecological sustainability of the sheep industry -- is part of the
federal department’s research branch, Agricultural Research
The agreement settles a 2007 lawsuit
against the research station, the USDA, ARS, and the U.S. Forest
Service by the Center for Biological Diversity and Western
The conservation groups claim that
the research station has been violating federal law since 1970,
when the National Environmental Policy Act began requiring
government agencies to assess the ecological impact of their
The research station had believed it was exempt
from NEPA under an exclusion for research-oriented programs, says
Andrew Hammond, regional director for ARS.
categorical exclusions are supposed to be opened to public comment,
says Marc Fink, an attorney for the Center for Biological
Diversity. The station, to Fink’s knowledge, never received
“I think it speaks for itself that
(the agency) settled,” says Michael Robinson of the Center
for Biological Diversity. “If they weren’t violating
the law, they wouldn’t have settled.”
“We thought we were operating correctly, but we agreed just
to be on the safe side,” counters Gregory Lewis, lead
researcher at the station.
A Department of Agriculture
attorney declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Conservationists filed suit because they believe the presence of
the domestic sheep threatens native populations of bighorn sheep,
grizzly bears, gray wolves, and other predators.
“The problem is domestic sheep,” says Jon Marvel,
executive director of the Idaho-based Western Watersheds Project.
“We can’t recover bighorn sheep to their native habitat
unless domestic sheep are removed. And which are more
Historically, bighorns ranged the
scattered BLM, Forest Service, and research station allotments, but
they have not been found there recently, says Lewis. Staff members
search the area daily for signs of the bighorns, he says; if any
were found, the domestic sheep would be moved.
bighorn population in central Idaho fell from about 3,850 in 1990
to 1,710 in 1998, according to Idaho Fish and Game biologist Dale
Toweill. He estimates current numbers at about 2,000. Bighorns may
once have numbered in the millions in North America.
conservation groups are also concerned about large predators in the
area, which includes 16,600 acres in the Centennial Mountains on
the Montana-Idaho border.
“The Centennial Mountains
provide a corridor for migration of larger wildlife like grizzly
and wolves,” says Jon Marvel. “Large predators have
used this very land, and having sheep there puts the predators at
risk of being killed for attacking livestock.”
Researchers, however, say they rarely have any troubles with
predators, and grizzly bears have never been killed in the area.
“We have really strict policies on killing wildlife, and we
don’t unless it’s a last-ditch effort,” says
Wildlife Services is the USDA agency charged with
the management of problem predators. Todd Grimm, the agency’s
regional supervisor, says aerial and ground hunting, traps and
snares are used to control coyotes on the station’s land.
Poisons, such as spring-loaded cyanide capsule devices, were not
used in the past year, he said.
Although no black bears
or mountain lions were killed last year, it would be normal to kill
one or two in a year for livestock protection, he says.
Wildlife Services tries to haze predators like coyotes by shooting
at them, says Lewis, but, “If (coyotes) don’t go away,
and they are killing lambs, then you have really no other
If nothing else, Marvel hopes the
ecological assessment will make the research station more
“One of the problems with this
particular function of the Agricultural Research Service is
it’s heavily concealed in a veil of secrecy. It’s
almost impossible to talk to them. (The assessment) will finally
shine the light of day on what they’re doing.”
The author is an intern for High Country