In many ways, the tale of Yellowstone's grizzly bears is one of remarkable success. When the species was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1975, there may have been as few as 136 of the bruins wandering in and around Yellowstone National Park. By 2006, there were more than 500, and in the spring of 2007, the US Fish and Wildlife Service declared the area's population officially recovered. Then in 2009, a federal judge ruled that the bears should remain protected given the number of threats they yet face. Still, their population has continued to expand outward.
As grizzly bears turn up in habitat they haven't occupied in years, though, they've raised the specter that old human-bear conflicts will rise in number as well. To minimize the risk that those conflicts will include livestock predation, and to ease the way for grizzlies' and other contentious species' spread, the National Wildlife Federation and other groups have worked closely with the US Forest Service to retire all the sheep grazing allotments and some of the cattle allotments -- totaling more than 600,000 acres and millions of dollars in incentives to buy out willing ranchers -- on federal lands surrounding Yellowstone National Park.
But there is a significant holdout, and it's not some stalwart rancher determined to stick it to the feds.
In the late teens and early '20s, the federal government carved out chunks of public land to create the USSES for sheep grazing and rangeland research, and specifically for developing ways to improve the efficiency and production of sheep. The station is, according to its research leader Greg Lewis, unique in the country and perhaps on the continent for its exclusive focus on sheep and for its range of habitats, from sere desert to sub-alpine meadows. That diversity allows the lab to develop genetic lines that can thrive in the West, he says, where about 50 percent of the nation's sheep come from. (In case you were wondering, U.S. sheep industry sales amount to $464 million annually -- mostly from meat, wool and cheese -- and support nearly 100,000 jobs, according to a 2011 report from the American Sheep Industry Association).
Currently, the facility has about 3,000 sheep, which it runs on assorted federal grazing allotments as well as on its own land, which includes about 28,000 acres at its headquarters just north of Dubois in Idaho, 16,600 acres of summer range on the Montana side of the Centennials and on two parcels of Idaho ranchland, at 2,600 and 1,200 acres each. Environmentalists as well as some officials involved with grizzly bear recovery (pdf) from the Bureau of Land Management (doc), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (pdf) and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks have pointed out that the station's practice of grazing sheep on the latter three parcels, as well as on a couple of nearby Forest Service grazing allotments, poses a threat to dispersing grizzly bears (as well as other wildlife, including wolves) -- which could seek sheep out as a food source and ultimately have to be destroyed as a result.
In 2007, the environmental groups Center for Biological Diversity and Western Watersheds Project sued the USSES with these and other issues in mind, and a 2008 settlement required the facility to analyze -- for the first time ever -- the environmental effects of its sheep grazing in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act, and consult with the US Fish and Wildlife Service about impacts to threatened and endangered species. At first, the sheep station set out to do an Environmental Analysis -- a less detailed study. But when grizzlies ended up back on the threatened list, the station began to develop a full Environmental Impact Statement on its grazing practices.
The draft, which came out last summer, calls for the station to continue operating as it has been. Where grizzly bears are concerned, it noted that
Although the literature suggests there is a possibility of the negative effects described above (such as the likelihood that some bears may form the habit of eating sheep) ... the likelihood of these effects occurring is low, and if they were to occur, the degree to which individual bears or the population would be affected is minimal.
The conclusion appears to be based in part on the fact that the station has seen only minimal encounters between grizzlies and sheep over the last decade, with limited loss of sheep and no grizzlies harmed, and in part based on the fact that its existing policies for heading off predation -- from keeping sheep well guarded with herders and dogs to minimizing bear attractants like garbage and livestock carcasses to moving sheep when bears show up on their pasture -- have so far been successful. Lewis notes that the station sometimes takes out a black bear that's getting into its sheep, but usually only every five or six years -- a pittance compared to how many are removed through sport hunts.
But since the number of grizzlies in the area is only likely to increase, "it's just a matter of time before more conflicts arise," says Tim Bozorth, field manager for the Dillon, Mont., office of the Bureau of Land Management and a BLM representative on the Yellowstone Ecosystem Subcommittee of the federal Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee. "In the draft, the sheep station says that they wouldn't take lethal action against the bears. But the fact is that once a bear preys on sheep, it's going to do it again. As the Park Service says in their warnings, a fed bear is a dead bear." In his comments on the draft (doc) -- which call on the USSES to concentrate its operations at its lower elevation parcels and grazing allotments outside of grizzly habitat -- Bozorth elaborates:
There is an inherent risk of conflict when domestic sheep are maintained in key grizzly bear habitat. Grizzly bears now range across the entire extent of the Centennial Mountains from east of Mt. Jefferson to west of Little Table Top Mountain. ... For a federal agency ... to graze sheep in these areas is in direct conflict with the Final Conservation Strategy for Grizzly Bears in the Greater Yellowstone Area. ... The USDA Forest Service and USDI Bureau of Land Management (BLM) made commitments to evaluate, monitor and phase out existing sheep grazing allotments on federal land as opportunities arose with willing permittees. As an agency of USDA, ARS should be consistent with the USDA Forest Service and other federal agencies in eliminating sheep grazing in occupied grizzly bear habitat.
The USSES's preferred course runs "Absolutely counter to the strategies that all the federal agencies and state agencies and even every private landowner is following to avoid conflict and chronic depredations," agrees National Wildlife Federation's Northern Rockies Regional Executive Director Tom France.
NWF, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition (pdf) and other environmental groups also argue that the draft study provides no clear justification for why the station needs to continue grazing in high altitude habitat -- especially since doing so would decrease the number of sheep at the station by only 20 percent. A media and stakeholder tour of the sheep station grounds last August also failed in this regard, writes OnEarth (the magazine of the Natural Resources Defense Council) blogger Zac Mattson.
But Lewis says the agency wouldn't be able to meet its mission if it weren't grazing on those parcels. "Within a federal agency you can't just do what you want to do. Our mission is a mandate," he says. "If what we do is going to be relevant to industry, the sheep need to be produced and evaluated under environmental conditions that farmers and ranchers are using. ... We sort of road test the sheep at those high elevations." The only comparable facility is in Nebraska, he adds, and sheep developed there are meant for the Midwest, not the West's arid deserts and mountains.
Lewis also points out that operating in the contested areas lets researchers evaluate how effective certain grazing practices -- like keeping sheep on the move instead of bedding them in one place, or minimizing stream crossings -- are in protecting the more sensitive sub-alpine landscape where many ranchers still graze sheep. "It helps us learn how to manage (grazing's) effects," he says. "Without research, all you can do is guess."
The station and the Agriculture Research Service are not federal land-management agencies, adds Sue Wingate, the Forest Service environmental coordinator who is overseeing the NEPA analysis. As such, on station lands, they're not bound by other state or federal agency's land-use plans. What they are bound by is the Endangered Species Act, she says. And based on the biological opinion released late last year by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which found that the sheep station's current grazing practices do not jeopardize grizzles, the station appears to be in compliance. An excerpt:
...while adverse effects to individual grizzly bears are expected, considering the large amount of habitat in the (Greater Yellowstone Area), resource management within such habitat, and the status of the grizzly bear, we do not expect the level of adverse effects to appreciably diminish the numbers, distribution, or reproduction of grizzly bears. (Moreover) The Sheep Station activities use approximately 10 percent of the Centennial Range. This small area of use, along with the documented use of grizzly bears throughout the Centennial Range, indicates that movement through the area is not significantly obstructed and genetic flow to other populations should not be compromised as a result of the project.
National Wildlife Federation's France remains firm, however. "There are other ways to accomplish that research than devoting some of the best wildlife habitat in North America to sheep grazing," he says. Permanently removing sheep from the USSES's high elevation properties and grazing allotments is potentially "the single most important step that can be taken for bear and wolf and wildlife conservation in terms of federal land management. If we can't get this one done, you have to ask yourself how serious the federal agencies are when it comes to wildlife connectivity."
Sarah Gilman is associate editor at High Country News.
Photo of sheep grazing at the US Sheep Experiment Station courtesy Stephen Ausmus, Agricultural Research Service.