Idaho Wool Growers Association sues state

Apr 16, 2010

The Idaho Wool Grower’s Association (IWGA), as well as Shirts Brothers Sheep and Frank Shirts Jr., two of the state’s larger sheep ranchers, have filed suit against the state of Idaho and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG). The suit, which was filed in Adams County District Court on April 1, accuses the state of not holding up their end of a 1997 agreement regarding transplants of bighorn sheep into the Hell’s Canyon region of the state. Under the terms of the agreement, IWGA claims that Idaho pledged not to allow bighorn transplant operations to negatively affect the livelihoods of local domestic sheep producers, in effect, promising to prevent damage that the ranchers say has now occurred in the form of lost grazing allotments in the region.

Early in 1997, federal and state agencies announced their intent to begin a transplantation program designed to reintroduce bighorn sheep to the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest on the Oregon side of Hell’s Canyon. Though originally native to the area, the wild sheep had been absent since the 1940s. Area ranchers immediately raised concerns, fearing that the expanding bighorn population would negatively impact their federal grazing allotments. Due to the fear of disease transmission between the two species, the agencies maintain that total separation is necessary in order to ensure a healthy bighorn population. It was this mandate that ranchers feared would eventually force them off of the range.

Worried about the potential effects to their grazing allotments on the Idaho side of the river, the Shirts family and IWGA objected to the reintroduction plan and threatened to take their complaints to the Idaho Legislature. In response to these concerns, a letter of agreement was drafted, promising the ranchers would face no damages as a result of bighorn introduction. The letter was signed by the wildlife agencies in Idaho, Oregon and Washington, as well as the Bureau of Land Mangement and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), represented by officials from the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. In the letter, all parties agreed that the state agencies would take responsibility for bighorn losses due to interaction with domestic sheep and that the sheep ranchers would not be held accountable for diseases contracted by bighorns that wandered into domestic sheep flocks. In addition, the letter stated, "The three (state) departments will also take whatever action is necessary to reduce further losses of bighorn sheep without adversely impacting existing domestic sheep operators." In response to these promises, the sheep ranchers withdrew their complaints. Later that same year, the letter was codified by the Idaho Legislature and became a state law. The new law also required that existing sheep operations be notified of transplant activities in order to better be aware of potential risk areas.

According to Stan Boyd, executive director of IWGA, the agreement worked well for the span of a decade. "For 10 years, we thought that letter was good," says Boyd. "We all thought we had an agreement. The wool growers would not protest transplants and, in return, if a bighorn wandered out of the Hell’s Canyon area into a domestic allotment, the wool grower would not be harmed. That was the bottom line." In 2007 however, the Payette National Forest (PNF) began reducing and otherwise modifying grazing allotments in the area, including those of the Shirts family. In addition, an Environmental Impact Statement, currently undergoing a comment period, may cut sheep grazing on the PNF by as much as 60 percent. These are decisions that, according to the IWGA and the sheepmen, amount to a failure of the agencies to uphold their commitment. Although it is USFS that is making the cuts, the lawsuit states that under the law that resulted from the 1997 agreement, IDFG should have intervened on behalf of the ranchers. "The Idaho Department of Fish and Game took no action to block the Forest Service from modifying the grazing allotments," says the text of the lawsuit. "As a result of the prior and continuing modifications, IWGA, Shirts, and Shirts Brothers have suffered significant economic losses, and will continue to suffer economic losses." All parties of the suit are seeking damages to offset these losses.

As of this writing, IDFG had not yet seen the lawsuit, and thus declined to comment. However, the agreement in question has faced criticism from various sources over the years. Detractors claim that the agreement applied only to the specific transplant activities of 1997 and that it is unenforceable due to a lack of public scrutiny at its inception. In 2005, Dale Bosworth, chief of USFS at that time, wrote that the agreement did not apply to the PNF. He also ordered a change in the PNF management plan which, up until that time, had been allowing sheep grazing to continue unchanged, largely as a result of the 1997 agreement.

Though the argument seems complicated, for IWGA, it is simply a case of a promise not kept. "The state of Idaho, and others, stated that they would hold harmless any domestic sheep operation and prevent them from being harmed as a result of bighorn sheep transplants," says Boyd. "They’ve done a significant amount of transplanting into Hell’s Canyon over the years, and now it has accumulated to where folks are losing their allotments. It is our opinion that, if they are harmed financially, they should be reimbursed." — Jason Campbell, WLJ Correspondent