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.”

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