Closure of federal sheep facility would be a victory for grizzlies

 

On the last day of August, 2012, a collared grizzly bear dubbed 726 by federal wildlife biologists vanished into the rugged Centennial Mountains on the Idaho-Montana border. A few weeks later, they recovered his collar near an established campsite. It appeared to have been cut, stoking suspicions that hunters may have shot the bear, a federally protected species, then hidden its carcass to avoid prosecution. Some environmental groups floated a more sinister theory (followed this June with a lawsuit), that the bear had been offed by a shepherd defending a flock that belonged not to a rancher, but to a federal institution: The Agricultural Research Service’s U.S. Sheep Experiment Station.

Today, despite investigators’ best efforts, the bear’s fate remains unknown. But its presence in those mountains underscores their importance as a wildlife highway between the greater Yellowstone ecosystem and pristine chunks of habitat to the west and north in Idaho and Montana (the mountains are within the “High Divide,” #2 on this map), particularly for Yellowstone’s expanding populations of grizzlies and wolves. Livestock don’t mix well with hungry predators; once a bear has learned how easy it is to take down a sheep or six, it’s likely to come back for more, and wildlife managers must kill it.

Environmental groups like the National Wildlife Federation have long worked with federal agencies and ranchers to head off such conflicts, negotiating the removal of livestock from more than 600,000 acres of federal land around Yellowstone. The Sheep Experiment Station, which grazes sheep on tens of thousands of acres in the Centennials, is something of a last holdout – and as I reported early in 2012, is pretty much working at cross purposes with the stated grizzly recovery goals of the Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and others. 

Yellowstone Griz small
The grizzly bear population in and around Yellowstone National Park has grown robust enough that the animals are dispersing outwards via habitat corridors like the one provided by the Centennial Mountains.

This summer, though, it’s begun to look as if the century-old institution might finally shut its doors – not for environmental reasons, but for financial ones. “A prolonged period of declining and flat budgets has resulted in underfunded programs at the (station),” Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack wrote in a letter this June, informing a Congressional appropriations subcommittee of the USDA’s plans to reassign the facility’s budget and employees. “The unit no longer has the critical mass of scientists necessary to address high priority research.”

Matthew Koehler
Matthew Koehler
Aug 20, 2014 07:44 AM
Wow! Seriously, how in the world can Tom France and the National Wildlife Federation be given credit for the closing of the federal sheep facility by HCN?

The fact is that the closure is the result of a lawsuit – and activism – brought by WildEarth Guardians, the Western Watersheds Project, the Gallatin Wildlife Association and the Cottonwood Environmental Law Center.

The truth of the matter, when it comes to grizzly bears, is that Tom France and the National Wildlife Federation have been working over-time since 2006 to get members of Congress to mandate huge increases in industrial logging of National Forest lands in PRIME grizzly bear habitat on both the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest and the Kootenai National Forest in Montana.

Furthermore, Tom France and the National Wildlife Federation decry any lawsuits brought about by conservation organizations concerned with the impacts of more logging and more road building in the middle of prime grizzly bear habitat.

Let's not forget that it was Tom France and the National Wildlife Federation that actually joined with the timber industry and filed a court briefing AGAINST conservation groups and in support of a Forest Service plan to do more logging in prime griz habitat.

It would be in HCN's best interest to do more research and more digging before giving someone like Tom France and the National Wildlife Federation credit for doing nothing, or in some cases, actually working against the protection of grizzly bear habitat.

Thanks.
Bryan Bird
Bryan Bird
Aug 20, 2014 08:34 AM
Thank you Matthew Koehler for placing the credit where it is due! In fact, thousands upon thousands of citizens have joined a chorus to close the federally-subsidized sheep station.
Karl Stone Kassler
Karl Stone Kassler Subscriber
Aug 20, 2014 08:50 AM
In fairness to HCN and the articles author… Matthew Koehler, Tom France is merely quoted by HCN's Sarah Gilman. The article doesn't attribute any credit to Tom France. Here is the explanation offered "This summer, though, it’s begun to look as if the century-old institution might finally shut its doors – not for environmental reasons, but for financial ones. “A prolonged period of declining and flat budgets has resulted in underfunded programs at the (station),” Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack wrote in a letter this June, informing a Congressional appropriations subcommittee of the USDA’s plans to reassign the facility’s budget and employees. “The unit no longer has the critical mass of scientists necessary to address high priority research.”"
Sarah Gilman
Sarah Gilman Subscriber
Aug 20, 2014 11:12 AM
Respectfully, Matt Koehler, the blog makes absolutely no claim that Tom France or the NWF is responsible for closing the sheep station. And certainly neither France nor the organization would make such a claim, since both have been clear in their support of the sheep station's continued operation so long as it discontinues sheep grazing in the high-conflict, important habitat linkage areas.

And while the ARS will note that the lawsuits have cost the agency around $1.5 million total over the years, which doesn't help its budgetary woes, the decision to close the facility was made this past winter, long before the second lawsuit was filed this summer. Thanks for reading,

--Sarah Gilman
Contributing editor
High Country News
Charlie Jankiewicz
Charlie Jankiewicz Subscriber
Aug 20, 2014 03:55 PM
Not a biologist so I won't comment on the grizzlies
However as a range conservationist who spend many as hour looking at range conditions on the USSES lands in the summer of 2011 I'd say the lands managed by this station were easliy in the best condition and more than met ecologist site potential of any lands grazed by sheep I've ever seen. Understand this article and the lawsuits aren't about plant community conditions however just felt the need to say the USSES has done and excellent job when it comes to grazing sheep in the Cenntennial Mountains. So let the blowback on my comment begin.
Larry Bullock
Larry Bullock
Aug 20, 2014 07:59 PM
To the USSES and all other subsidized livestock-industry-serving institutions -- good riddance.
Sarah Gilman
Sarah Gilman Subscriber
Nov 20, 2014 03:49 PM
From Utah State University's Peter Adler, who sent me this thoughtful comment response to the blog. It adds great nuance: Victory for grizzlies? Perhaps in the short term in this one particular location. But the long-term conservation of grizzlies, and their habitat, depends on the kind of ecological research that is impossible to conduct without research stations like the USSES. I am a Utah State University ecologist who has been doing research at the USSES for a decade. My research is about the factors that control plant species diversity and the ecological impacts of climate change, not about sheep production. And our research plots are located in the "headquarters" portion of the USSES, down in the Snake River Plain, not in the high elevation summer range.

We do research at the USSES for the following reasons: First, it has unique long-term data sets going back to the 1920's. In fact, each summer my team censuses the same study plots that were established almost a century ago, which makes our work on climate change so unique. Second, in contrast to much of the Intermountain West where native sagebrush steppe vegetation has been lost to annual invasive species and frequent fire, at the USSES the native plant communities are intact and in good condition (as Charlie commented). Because the USSES is managed explicitly for research, we can access the land, initiate new experiments, and conduct long-term research without the red-tape that would be required on other federal lands and without the constant worry of losing equipment (like weather stations) to vandalism.

I am dismayed at how narrowly the environmental groups, and HCN, have framed this issue. It's not just "sheep industry vs grizzlies." Closure of the USSES would affect much more land than the one allotment where the grizzly controversy erupted, and would affect much more research than just the current USSES program. In my opinion, the USSES has been terribly underfunded and underutilized. The location of the USSES, at the edge of the GYC and at the epicenter of contemporary land-management conflicts (sage-grouse, grizzlies, wolves), should make it the highest priority for USDA's natural resources research, not the lowest. Closing the station would incur a very high opportunity cost.