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Know the West

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.”

It’s a major, if indirect, victory for wildlife, says Tom France, NWF’s Northern Rockies senior director of Western wildlife conservation. “In some ways, this may be the reverse of an experience you had growing up – where there was a vacant lot or a woodland where you played, that someone later came and built houses on.”

Under the closure, much of the station’s nearly $2 million budget will be transferred to other Idaho research facilities, and its genetics research program would go to another federal sheep research facility in Nebraska. But Agricultural Research Service spokeswoman Sandy Miller Hays was uncertain what would happen to its rangeland-related research. Such projects are a key part of why the sheep industry is stumping for the facility to stay open: Without access to high desert and mountain environments where Western ranchers actually run sheep, supporters argue, researchers can’t test specialized breeds or ways to improve grazing practices to protect sensitive habitats and species. And the loss of its largest employer (17 people would be reassigned) would be a major blow to rural Dubois, Idaho.

It didn’t take long for Idaho and Montana’s congressional delegations, along with a couple of conservative lawmakers from Washington and Oregon, to throw their weight behind the station with their own letter in July. Notably, all are Republicans that have in the past attacked federal budgets as being too bloated. In response, the research service held listening sessions and gathered public comments through last Thursday, and will report back to Congress with its findings.

Until then, the station’s fate will likely be as murky as bear 726’s. But “unless Idaho’s congressional delegation passes a rider on some bill that keeps it open,” France says, “it’s not a matter of if it closes, but of when.”

Sarah Gilman is a contributing editor at High Country News. She tweets @Sarah_Gilman. Image courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.