Domestic sheep losing ground to bighorns

Sep 9, 2011

The American Sheep Industry Association (ASI) is trying to fend off environmentalists threatening one quarter of their business. Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson is seeking a five-year “time out” from the U.S. Forest Service’s (USFS) decision to limit sheep grazing in areas where they come in contact with bighorn sheep.

In 2007, environmentalists successfully ended sheep grazing along Idaho’s western border, removing 13,000 sheep from the Payette National Forest based on unsubstantiated data that domestic sheep can spread a pneumonia-like disease to bighorns, according to Margaret Soulen Hinson, ASI president.

They are now trying to extend that decision to all public lands where domestic sheep may interact with their wild cousins, she added. “That would mean the removal of 43 percent of the sheep that graze on national forest, or 23 percent of all domestic sheep in the country,” Soulen Hinson said.

While disease transmission has been documented in forced close confines, it has never been substantiated in the wild. In fact, there have been repeated die-offs of bighorns where there was no contact with domestic sheep.

Despite that, scientists are working on a vaccine that will eradicate the disease. The five-year delay is, in part, to buy more time for the development of the vaccine. “USDA is working on a vaccine and these five years will buy time for the sheep industry, as well as time to develop new management strategies to keep the domestic sheep from interacting with the bighorn,” Peter Orwick, ASI executive director, said.

“Section 442, scheduled to come to the U.S. House of Representatives this month, provides a five-year time out from federal land management regarding domestic sheep grazing to address the bighorn sheep controversy that threatens nearly one quarter of the American sheep industry,” Orwick said.

According to Western Watershed Project’s (WWP) website, bighorn die-offs are caused by domestic sheep spreading pneumonia intermingling with bighorn. While bighorns are not on the endangered species list, or even on the watch list, they easily gain emotional support from environmentalists and advocates ready to champion for a cause.

According to WWP, another obstacle bighorns face is grazing habitat. “Much public land in the West has been deemed unsuitable for bighorn re-establishment, not because bighorns did not historically thrive in these areas, but because of mismanagement by agencies that allow domestic sheep and cattle to over-utilize grasses and forbs on public

land,” their website reads. They go on to brag about their success in protecting bighorn sheep in the Hells Canyon and Salmon River areas using litigation to pressure federal agencies.

As the sheep industry continues this battle, it appears that they may be fighting for more than just their industry alone.

Simpson, chairman of the House Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, moved the Interior and Environment Appropriations Act for fiscal year 2012 through committee in July. The bill contains several provisions essential for preserving responsible access to public grazing.

“Today’s grazing practices are vastly different than the ones of the past. The majority of farmers and ranchers recognize that their livelihood depends on a healthy and sustainable environment, and the BLM [Bureau of Land Management] and Forest Service do a much better job of weeding out the bad players and protecting sensitive areas,” said Simpson.

The bill also addresses Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA) fee payments. “Our ranchers have been under assault by frivolous lawsuits for years, lawsuits that are brought up for no other reason but to obstruct the process in order to control land and water,” said Simpson. “I’m concerned that some groups are basi cally funding themselves by abusing EAJA, turning suing the government into a cottage industry where taxpayers are the big losers. Our bill shines some light on the EAJA process, requiring detailed reports on the amount of program funds used, the names of the fee recipients, and the hourly rates of attorneys and expert witnesses stated in the applications that was awarded. Until now, this information has not seen the light of day, and the public has a right to know how taxpayer dollars are being used.”

Highlights of the bill and report

Grazing: The bill includes language extending the grazing rider that has been in place since fiscal year 1999, which allows BLM to extend existing expiring grazing permits while they complete the environmental work required for 10-year renewals. This language was included in the president’s budget request. This bill extends that language for five years.

Also, requested by the administration, the bill expands that language by allowing BLM to transfer permits under the same conditions without re-triggering the National Environmental Policy Act (NE- PA) process. This language will allow BLM to process approximately 2,250 permits per year, fully reducing its permit backlog over four or five years while focusing on better environmental work.

The bill exempts the process of trailing from NEPA requirements for the years 2011 through 2014. This language will allow ranchers with existing permits to continue moving their cattle to grazing allotments while giving BLM the opportunity to begin including trailing as part of their environmental analysis when renewing permits.

The bill includes language preventing the USFS from applying the grazing rules that eliminate domestic sheep grazing on the Payette National Forest to other forests for five years while the USFS and USDA complete needed research on the impact that domestic sheep have on wild sheep and to continue development of a vaccine to protect bighorn sheep populations from respiratory disease. Research has recently produced an experimental vaccine that shows promise, but work still needs to be done. Although this bighorn sheep population is not endangered, the bill continues current preventative management, including buffer zones between bighorn sheep and domestic sheep. Similar language is included to prevent BLM from implementing similar grazing restrictions.

The bill also includes an increase of $16 million for BLM Range Management and a $10 million increase for Grazing Management on the National Forest System.

Litigation: The bill includes language requiring litigants to exhaust the administrative appeals process before litigating in federal court on grazing issues.

The report also includes language directing the Department of the Interior (DOI), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the USFS to provide the Appropriations Committee with detailed information regarding EAJA payments and to make that information publicly available. The information required includes: detailed reports on the amount of program funds used; the names of the fee recipients; the names of the federal judges; the disposition of the applications (including any appeals of action taken on the applications); and the hourly rates of attorneys and expert witnesses stated in the applications that was awarded, for all EAJA fee payments awarded as a result of litigation against any of the DOI bureaus, EPA or the USFS, or their respective employees. The report shall also include the amounts, outside of EAJA awards, paid in settlement of such litigation. Such information will also be included with each agency’s annual budget submission in the future. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor