Idaho sheep grazing reduction on hold

Mar 16, 2012
Idaho sheep grazing reduction on hold

A rider added to the 2012 Appropriations Act by Idaho Sen. Mike Simpson has called a temporary halt on Forest Service plans to severely reduce sheep grazing on one national forest.

Under a plan implemented in 2010, officials on the Payette National Forest (PNF) in central Idaho proposed to reduce sheep grazing on the forest, abandoning entire allotments, in an effort to protect resident populations of bighorn sheep. The decision was the culmination of a years-long debate regarding the ability of wild bighorn sheep to coexist with domestic flocks in the steep, hilly country around the Salmon and Snake rivers. According to Forest Service personnel, despite multiple introduction attempts, bighorn sheep flocks are subject to massive die-offs due to pneumonia, a phenomenon that many scientists say is the result of commingling with domestic sheep that can harbor the disease. The plan, known as ‘7O Modified’ after its option title in the original Environmental Impact Document, called for a reduction of roughly 61,000 acres permitted for sheep over a threeyear period. Grazing was removed from 45,000 acres during the 2011 season, and removal of an additional 16,000 acres is scheduled to occur before the 2013 season.

Simpson’s rider, which went into effect on March 5, disallows further grazing reductions on the PNF for one year, and prevents other forests around the west from implementing similar plans for the same period. In a statement released earlier this month, Simpson outlined the reasoning behind the rider, indicating that the models utilized by PNF in their decision were flawed and that the management of bighorns, which are not a federally listed endangered species, is the responsibility of individual states, not the federal government. “Because bighorn sheep are not endangered in the Rocky Mountain West, states, not the federal government, have the responsibility to manage them. States like Idaho currently have approved management plans in place, and this language allows federal agencies to manage populations on public lands under those plans,” he said. “While they are not endangered, bighorn sheep are an important part of wildlife in the West, and the draw of bighorn sheep hunting has an important economic impact on many western communities. It is important that we find a solution to this problem that conserves bighorn populations without destroying the domestic sheep industry.”

While anti grazing advocates contend that the rider’s ambiguous wording would allow the 7O plan to continue, PNF supervisor Keith Lannom has already announced his intention to abide by the new rule. “The Payette National Forest has done an admirable job in balancing various interests while addressing this complex natural resource issue since 2005,” said regional Forester Harv Forsgren in a recent release. “Forest Supervisor Lannom continues the tradition of taking a balanced approach.”

While Idaho’s remaining sheep ranchers applaud the decision, many worry that it may be a case of too little help arriving too late. “[The rider] is very important, so that these folks won’t have to sell off another band of sheep right away,” says Idaho Wool Grower’s Executive Director Stan Boyd. “The unfortunate thing is that 70 percent of the grazing cuts were made in the first year.” Boyd points out that, for the several ranchers who have already been forced to sell out, the recent changes brought by the rider come as small comfort. “It sure doesn’t help them; they’re already out of business,” says Boyd. Idaho’s sheep industry is also unsure regarding what will happen when the rider’s one year time table is up. “If this language doesn’t go in again next year, will the forest implement phase two, or jump straight to phase three?” asks Boyd. “We don’t know.” According to Boyd, PNF personnel have also indicated that they are uncertain at this point regarding how they will proceed when the rider expires. “They’re going to cross that bridge when they come to it,” he says.

The decisions made on the Payette also have wider implications throughout the west, and sheep ranchers from every western state have long worried that the PNF’s 7O plan will dictate policy throughout the national forest system, a concern that Boyd indicates is already playing out in other areas. “Ranchers in Nevada have lost range to bighorn habitat, and allotments are now being looked at in Colorado and Wyoming,” he points out. — Jason Campbell, WLJ Correspondent