Sheep Experiment Station stays open

Jul 25, 2014
by WLJ

What if one day you went to pick up dinner at the store, and it just wasn’t there? In this great country, many people take for granted the fact there’s always an abundance of choices and quantity at the meat counter. And at the same time, although American consumers don’t pay for it like they do a lamb chop or leg of lamb, they want rangelands where livestock graze to be kept healthy. They want abundant wildlife and clean water. And they’re right—we should expect those things from our rangelands. But, as Peter Orwick of the American Sheep Industry Association (ASI) points out, we need to keep investing in range science research if we are going to keep feeding a growing population and keep the environment healthy.

“In fact, the two goals— feeding the world, and protecting our environment— are inseparable,” said Orwick, Executive Director of ASI.

That’s what the U.S. Sheep Experimental Station (USS- ES or station) is all about, Orwick told WLJ in an interview. Congress recently rescued the 100-year-old USS- ES from closure after U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack proposed to pull its funding. Had the House Agriculture Appropriations subcommittee not responded within 30 days of Vilsack’s announcement, the facility would have been closed.

The USSES covers almost 50,000 acres of federal land in Idaho and Montana, and includes a variety of ecosystems representative of many of the rangelands grazed by domestic sheep across the West. According to Orwick, the USSES has historically performed research that has vastly improved grazing methods and helped provide science to advance the industry—and its work is still on the cutting edge.

“The station is the only one of its kind, and it provides research crucial to the advancement of range science, domestic sheep genetics, wildlife conservation—basically all the things that tie into sound sheep production,” said Orwick. “The preservation of the station, and the support Congress has shown us, is a tremendous win.”

The USSES is performing research on issues such as potential bighorn/domestic sheep disease transfer and sagebrush and sage grouse conservation, Orwick said.

“They’ve got a lot of neat things going on up there,” Orwick told WLJ. “If we lost this station, we’d lose the ability to do research on the kinds of western ecosystems that support the bulk of sheep grazing—both on public and private land.”

Almost half of the American sheep herd spends some time on federal lands. Orwick said keeping the station open is a positive for not just the sheep industry, but for all public lands grazing. Perhaps that’s why Public Lands Council (PLC), ASI, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and state woolgrowers associations all submitted letters to appropriators in Congress, asking them to reject Secretary Vilsack’s proposal. Idaho’s state officials also publicly protested, as did members of Congress from Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington. In a letter to the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman, the congressmen also voiced their disappointment that USDA did not contact them ahead of announcing plans to close the station.

Orwick said USDA didn’t notify the sheep industry in advance, either.

“We’d been in talks with them about the station in recent months, and there was no mention of this,” he said.

Although in his announcement, Vilsack cited budget concerns as his reasoning to close the facility, Orwick explained that the proposal was actually driven by an antigrazing organization, Western Watersheds Project (WWP). WWP has used litigation in attempts to close the station for years, most recently claiming that its presence threatens grizzly bear and wolf populations.

“USDA’s proposal to close the station was just another example of groups like WWP being able to push the USDA around at will,” said Orwick. “Because it’s federal land, they think they can harass and get their way. So when Congress shut down the agency’s proposal flat-out, they also sent a message to litigious groups like WWP: ‘We reject your agenda, and we reject your tactics.’” Orwick said Congress’ decision offers an opportunity for industry to develop a plan for national sheep industry research involving the USSES.

“USDA has slowly been chipping away at the ability of this station to function. Now we have a new opportunity to reverse that trend. We intend to work with Congress and the USDA to put plans together, put all the scientists together, and go forward. It’s a great opportunity to make better, more efficient use of the resources available at the station, and we thank Congress and the state officials who fought for us.”

Meanwhile, WWP has reportedly claimed it will keep litigating the research station—which they call a “grizzly bear corridor” that shouldn’t be grazed. After Congress’ rejection of the USSES closure, WWP attorney John Meyer reportedly told the Associated Press, “We will move forward with our lawsuit to stop the irresponsible grazing.”

“To WWP, there is no ‘responsible grazing,’” said Orwick. “I don’t know just how—or if—they would propose to keep feeding the American people or the world without grazing. Luckily, they aren’t the ones responsible for feeding us—America’s livestock producers are.” — WLJ