The recovery of Yellowstone's grizzly bears has been remarkable. When the species was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 1975, there were just 136 wandering in and around the national park. Now, there are more than 600. And though a federal court confirmed in November that the population should remain protected, it's continued to grow and expand outward.
But as grizzlies recolonize their former haunts, the conflicts with ranchers that once helped push them to the brink are likely to rise again. And bears that make a habit of eating livestock are usually destroyed. To minimize such risks for grizzlies and other controversial wildlife like wolves, the National Wildlife Federation and other conservation groups have worked with willing ranchers and the U.S. Forest Service since 2002 to retire many of the sheep and cattle grazing allotments on federal lands with important habitat surrounding Yellowstone National Park -- totaling more than 600,000 acres.
There is, however, a significant holdout, and it's not some stalwart rancher determined to stick it to the feds. It's the century-old U.S.
Agricultural Research Service's Sheep Experiment Station, which works to improve sheep production and conducts rangeland research. The facility summers its flocks on thousands of acres in the Centennial Mountains on the Idaho-Montana border, smack in the middle of prime grizzly habitat inside the "High Divide" -- a location that's spurred a bitter fight over where public-lands grazing is appropriate.
Conservation groups and some federal and state officials believe sheep are inappropriate here because this area is a natural corridor into which Yellowstone's grizzlies and other wildlife can expand -- and connect to other populations. Retiring sheep station pastures in the Centennials may be "the single most important step that can be taken for bear and wolf and wildlife conservation in terms of federal land management," argues Tom France, the National Wildlife Federation's Northern Rockies regional executive director. "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."
The station, on the other hand, counters that its sheep are already carefully managed to minimize conflict. The station's research helps widen the margins of a difficult industry, adds Dillon, Mont.-based sheep rancher John Helle, and keeping ranchers in business benefits wildlife by ensuring that private ranch land doesn't get subdivided.
The bears, for their part, have already moved in: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that there are 18 in the Centennials. Five collared grizzlies have turned up on sheep-station grazing lands alone since 2001.
The Sheep Experiment Station was assembled from public parcels by the federal government in the late teens and early '20s, and augmented with private land purchases in the '40s. It currently has about 3,000 sheep and is headquartered on 28,000 acres just north of Dubois, Idaho. It also holds just over 20,000 acres and two national forest grazing allotments in and adjacent to suitable and occupied grizzly habitat in the Centennials.
The station is unique in the country, according to its research leader, Greg Lewis. Its diverse habitat range, from sagebrush steppe to subalpine meadows, allows it to develop genetic lines that thrive in the West, which supplies about 50 percent of the nation's sheep. The Centennials parcels can also be used to evaluate and improve grazing practices to better protect the sensitive mountain landscapes where many ranchers summer sheep, Lewis says. "Without research, all you can do is guess."
The station's own grazing impacts, though, are only now getting their first hard look under the National Environmental Policy Act. The Agricultural Research Service released the resulting draft study last summer. It calls for grazing to continue on all the station's parcels and allotments, including those in the Centennials. Impacts to grizzlies -- and to their larger population -- will likely be minimal, it concludes, because those in the area haven't been much trouble and because the station's predator avoidance methods are so thorough -- from keeping guard dogs and herders present at all times to minimizing attractants to keeping sheep constantly on the move.
But since the number of grizzlies in the area is likely to keep climbing, "it's just a matter of time before more conflicts arise," and bears end up being killed, 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. Not only that, he and other officials say, but continuing to graze sheep in occupied Yellowstone grizzly habitat runs counter to the approach of the federal and state agencies cooperating on grizzly recovery.
Conservation groups hope to see the Agricultural Research Service step into line in advance of the final decision on station operations, expected this summer. The station is not bound by other agencies' plans on its own lands, though it is by the Endangered Species Act. But the Fish and Wildlife Service has found that while the station's current grazing practices are likely to adversely affect some grizzlies, they won't jeopardize the survival of Yellowstone's population or significantly obstruct habitat connectivity.
Even so, in the same report, the wildlife agency recommends that the sheep station seek summer range outside of grizzly habitat. "We don't have an issue with the fact that they have a job to do and a mission, but 98 percent of grizzly bear range is empty right now. There are probably better places to fulfill that mission," says U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grizzly bear recovery coordinator Chris Servheen. "This is not a good place to run sheep."