Judge overturns Idaho sheep grazing decision

Jun 22, 2012

In a ruling issued June 13, Boise-based U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill determined that a three-year phase out of sheep grazing on Idaho’s Payette National Forest (PNF) will continue this year, overturning an earlier decision by USDA’s Forest Service to delay the process for at least another year. In his decision, Winmill ruled that the 7,800 acres in question are not covered by a congressional rider to the 2011 appropriations bill preventing the reduction of sheep grazing allotments by the Forest Service until 2013.

The decision is the latest step in an ongoing debate that has raged for years concerning the ability of domestic sheep flocks to coexist on the range with their wild bighorn counterparts. For years, bighorns in the west have faced massive die-offs resulting from pneumonia, a disease that can be contracted, say many scientists, through commingling with domestic flocks that often harbor the pathogen.

In 2007, Idaho-based Western Watersheds Project (WWP), along with several other antigrazing groups, sued the Forest Service, calling for removal of domestic sheep from the PNF in order to protect bighorn populations from the threat of commingling. In that case, Winmill ordered the Forest Service to draft a new environmental impact statement for the forest, a decision that ultimately resulted in the removal of sheep from nearly 70,000 acres of previously allotted acres, scheduled to phase out between 2011 and 2013. Following an appeal from the Woolgrowers, Idaho Congressional Rep. Mike Simpson intervened, inserting a rider into the 2011 appropriations bill that specifically forbade the Forest Service from making grazing reductions on any national forest land due to bighorn sheep presence for one year, if those reductions were not already in place by July 1 of 2011.

The woolgrowers then turned to the Forest Service, pointing out that the rider applied not only to other forests, but to the ongoing phase-out of grazing on the Payette as well. Regional Forester Harv Forsgren agreed and grazing reductions were suspended for the 2012 season. WWP sued again, this time contending that, because the 2012 reductions on the Payette were part of an ongoing process begun prior to the rider, they were not covered by its language, a belief that Winmill ultimately shared.

“The Forest Service’s interpretation of the rider was unreasonable,” wrote Winmill in his injunction. “The Forest Service’s interpretation of the rider is contrary to the intent of Congress.” Winmill based his decision on the statement that Simpson intended the 2011 rider as a stop-gap measure that would prevent restrictions only on other national forests, not on the Payette. Representatives from Simpson’s office, however, stress that this is not an accurate reflection of Simpson’s actual intent when the rider was authored. “Judge Winmill’s decision did not follow congressional intent,” says Simpson spokeswoman Nikki Watts. “Congressman Simpson’s provision was meant to freeze grazing (on the Payette) as it currently existed, not as it was planned to be reduced by the forest.”

WWP and the other antigrazing groups involved in the case have publicly voiced their approval for the decision, while accusing the Forest Service of ‘cherry picking’ the rider to favor affected ranchers. “Judge Winmill has correctly read the language of the congressional rider,” said WWP Executive Director Jon Marvel in a recent press release. “WWP hopes that Congress will learn from this decision that attempts like this to micromanage federal land management agencies can and will backfire.”

According to Stan Boyd, executive director for the Idaho Woolgrowers, the decision, while problematic for the affected ranchers, is not unexpected. “The phase-out was already in place, (the ranchers) have been planning on this for the last two years,” said Boyd. “They were just hoping they would get a reprieve this year.” Boyd also explains that, while the 7,700-acre reduction is significant, the lion’s share of the planned reductions has already occurred. Under the reduction plan issued in 2010, PNF removed 53,000 acres from sheep grazing during the 2011 season. The reduction reinstated by Winmill calls for a reduction of 7,700 acres this year, and an additional reduction of 6,500 acres in 2013. All told, roughly 68,000 acres are to be removed from grazing, 70 percent of the total acreage available prior to 2010.

While these reductions may prove disastrous for ranchers using the Payette, Boyd points out that the rider may still provide hope for grazers on other national forests around the west who have long feared that actions on the PNF would set a precedent that would reverberate throughout the public land system. Forest users in Colorado, Nevada and California have already faced reductions due to bighorns, and ranchers worry that other forests, and other states, may not be far behind. The rider, however, will still prevent this from happening this year. “The underlying premise of the rider says that the Forest Service cannot reduce anybody’s allotments due to the presence of bighorns for one year; that was never challenged” says Boyd. Hopefully, (Simpson) can get that same wording in next year for a longer period of time.”

Currently, the future of a second rider, or other congressional action, is not known.

Simpson staffers, however, point out that the congressman has no intention of turning a deaf ear to the sheep industry. “Congressman Simpson has been clear all along that he’s trying to strike a balance between bighorn sheep conservation and domestic sheep grazing,” says Watts. “We can and should do both, and we need additional science regarding disease transmission in the wild before BLM and the Forest Service end all domestic sheep grazing in Idaho and the west.” — Jason Campbell, WLJ Correspondent

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