Sheep station closure under consideration
— Litigation from environmental groups blamed
Following World War II, Pastor and Social Activist Martin Niemöller delivered his now iconic “First they came” speech-turnedpoem. The brief and simple poem describes the perspective of one who saw the Nazis take away different members of the community—Communists, Social Democrats, Trade Unionists, Jews and Catholics—yet did not act because he belonged to none of those groups. But when they finally came for him, there was no one left to speak out in his defense because there was no one left.
The comparison is certainly overly dramatic, but a similar situation is developing in the context of agricultural use of federal lands. Currently, they are coming for the sheep. As one leader in the cattle community asked: if any segment of the grazing livestock industry is diminished, who might be next?
Last month, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack sent a letter to Congress notifying them of plans to close the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station (USSES or station) near Dubois, ID, by Nov. 3, 2014. The closure of the station would be the de facto result of proposed “reprogramming” of the station’s funds. The respective appropriations committees in Congress have until the end of this week to decide to accept or reject the proposal.
The decisions of the Congressional appropriation committees’ members will decide the fate of the USS- ES, which has been described as one of the oldest and most unique livestock research facilities—as well as the only sheep-specific research station—in the country.
Established in 1915, the station covers roughly 48,000 acres of federal land in Idaho and Montana containing a vast array of different rangeland ecosystems. They have about 3,000 mature sheep and about 6,500 total sheep at lambing. The station has almost century-long pedigrees of many of the major U.S. sheep breeds, and even developed three breeds itself. It additionally boasts 90 years of recorded history on vegetation’s response to fire and grazing, and over 40 years of data on the impacts of fire to sage brush and the sage grouse.
Peter Orwick, Executive Director of the American Sheep Industry Association, described the station as unique, a descriptor echoed by Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Director of Information, Sandy Miller Hays.
“We do animal research at a lot of different locations, but I think the sheep experiment station was unique. I can’t think of another location that is really like that in terms of the scope of sheep research.”
If the station is closed, some of the research programs will be moved to other research stations with the Clay Center, NE, Meat Animal Research Center (MARC) being the most likely candidate. Though it is not yet known what programs would be continued for certain, sheep genetic research would very likely continue. Rangeland and grazing management research likely would not due to the restrictions of the MARC location.
The why behind the proposed redirection of funds and the subsequent closure of the station is a matter of some speculation. According to Vilsack’s letter to Congress, the move is a budgetary decision. He called the station “unsustainable” and “no longer viable.”
“A prolonged period of declining and flat budgets has resulted in underfunded programs at the USSES, and the unit no longer has the critical mass of scientists necessary to address high priority research.”
Such budgetary woes were confirmed by Hays when speaking to WLJ.
“Budgetary issues definitely came into play in making the decision to put together the proposal because ARS has gone through long periods of either declining budgets, where we actually get less money this year than we got the year before, or flat budget.”
She said that as a result some management units, such as USSES, aren’t sus tainable and resources must be adjusted to prioritize research programs.
But Orwick disputed this reasoning as the whole story in a lengthy interview with WLJ.
“Even though the department is adamant that it was their own budget issues that stood in their way, this is the second instance this spring where Western Watersheds [Project] has been able to force USDA into a decision to avoid future litigation.”
He spoke at length about documents from the U.S. Forest Service regarding the grazing of domestic sheep in areas thought to be big horn sheep habitat, which he claimed are a collaboration with the Idaho-based environmental group Western Watersheds Project (WWP). The documents he referred to plan to cut sheep grazing up to 70 percent in Wyoming, Utah, Idaho and Nevada. He also noted that 46 percent of American sheep depend on federal grazing for some portion of their lives.
“In the documents we have from the Forest Service, they say that this plan was a collaboration with Western Watersheds to avoid future litigation. I don’t have a document that says the closure of the sheep station is a second collaboration between the department of ag and Western Watersheds, but Western Watersheds, in their own press releases, absolutely take credit.”
Indeed, the responses from WWP to the news of Vilsack’s proposal to close the station could easily be described as jubilant. One widely published quote by WWP Executive Director Travis Bruner was downright boastful:
“What Vilsack didn’t say was that the Sheep Experiment Station had also become a legal liability. Our repeated and successful litigation over the ecological impacts of the project surely influenced the decision to end the failing experiment once and for all.”
[Editor’s note: WLJ was unable to locate the original source of this quote due to the ongoing suspension of WWP’s website, but it was referenced by Orwick and shared in numerous regional publications as a late- June quote taken from a WWP statement.] “[Litigation from WWP] has been endless,” said Orwick, noting that USSES has been the only ARS research station to be forced to undergo National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) assessment, which he credited to WWP litigation. “It is from the harassment of the folks who want sheep off all federal ground.”
Environmental groups, specifically WWP, have long asserted the USSES is a severe detriment to threatened grizzly bears, wolves and other predators. They argue the presence of domestic livestock, and the attendant interest their keepers have to protect them from predation, results in predators being shot and killed.
“The Agricultural Research Station’s sheep grazing is endangering native wildlife and preventing the range from serving as a wildlife corridor,” read one late- June WWP newsletter, which announced a second lawsuit against the USSES regarding the unresolved 2012 death of a grizzly bear. “There is no good reason to continue the ‘experiment’ in how many native predators have to die to maintain the sheep operations.”
Impacts of closure
As mentioned, if congressional appropriation committee members decide in favor of Vilsack’s proposal, USSES will be closed Nov. 3 of this year.
“If that station goes, you don’t get a rebuild, not in these times,” said Orwick. “Budget-wise, opportunitywise, you wouldn’t have a dedicated sheep research station in America again. And you certainly wouldn’t have it with the unique characteristics that they have in Dubois where it mirrors so closely what the majority of sheep production sees, which is range condition and a mix of public and private land.”
In a July 1 letter sent to Congress regarding the proposal, both the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the Public Lands Council stressed the negative impacts in light of the station’s fire- and sage grouse-related research.
“Closing USSES will end these research capabilities and will not only be devastating to the sheep industry, but the loss of continuing research will be detrimental to endangered and threatened species in the area, as well as ecosystem health.”
The direct impact to the people and areas affected by the station should not be overlooked either. Though WLJ was unable to reach any county officials for comment on the economic impact the station’s closure might have on the area, it has been noted that the station is one of the largest employers in Clark County, Idaho.
In addition, the simple phrase “employee relocation,” discussed in Vilsack’s letter as a cost of closing the station, has very real ramifications for the station’s 21 full-time employees. USSES employees who will be reassigned to other locations—in most cases out of the state, let alone the community, where they’ve lived and worked for years—if the proposal is accepted must make difficult and often emotional decisions about their future.
“It is not a sure thing,” Hays said. “This is a proposal.”
As with many things these days, there is the opportunity for ranchers or other interested parties to weigh in on the matter. Unlike proposed amendments and draft policies, however, there is no convenient, direct means of commenting on the proposed closure. The decision is in the hands of the members of the House Committee on Appropriations so comments would have to be directed to them specifically.
Vilsack’s letter was directed to Robert Aderholt, Chairman of the Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies Subcommittee. Subcommittee members are as follows:
• Robert Aderholt (R-AL4) • Kevin Yoder (R-KS3) • Sam Farr (D-CA20) • Sanford Bishop Jr. (D- GA2) • Rosa DeLauro (D-CT3) • Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE1) • Tom Latham (R-IA3) • Alan Nunnelee (R-MS1) • Chellie Pingree (D-ME1) • Thomas Rooney (R-FL17) • David Valadao (R-CA21) As mentioned, the WWP has been urging its members to contact Congress urging them to accept the proposal, but is also encouraging them to sign a petition to have the USSES land turned over to the Red Rocks Lake National Wildlife Refuge if it is closed.
“I have not heard any details at all about plans, if we do in fact close the sheep station, of what would happen to the land,” said Hays when asked about that potential. “That’s federal land and that’s always a complicated process when you start to dispose of federal land.”
As of publishing, the WWP petition had 723 digital “signatures” out of its goal of 1,000 by July 15 and 10,000 total. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor