Forest Service sued over sheep allotment closures

Sep 21, 2012

The Idaho Wool Growers Association (IWGA), along with individual ranchers in that state, has filed suit against the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). The claim disputes a 2010 decision by officials in Idaho’s Payette National Forest (PNF) to cut sheep grazing allotments on the forest by roughly 70 percent. That decision came in the form of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), drafted by PNF personnel, addressing the concern of disease transmission between domestic sheep and their wild bighorn counterparts in the region.

For years, efforts to restore bighorn populations around the west have been hampered by massive death events resulting from pneumonia. These events have long been attributed by many to bighorn commingling with domestic sheep flocks that can harbor the pathogen.

In 2007, Idaho-based Western Watersheds Project, along with several other anti-grazing groups, sued USFS, calling for removal of domestic sheep from the PNF in order to protect bighorn populations from the threat of commingling. In that case, Federal District Court Judge B. Lynn Winmill ordered USFS to draft a new environmental impact statement for the forest, ultimately resulting in the 2010 decision to remove domestic sheep grazing from nearly 70,000 previously allotted acres.

The decision, says IWGA Executive Director Stan Boyd, forced some ranchers to drastically cut their flocks, and put others on the brink of total failure. According to Boyd, the current suit against USFS is based partially on the contention that assumptions made by the PNF regarding disease transmission are not based in reality. “We view the EIS as flawed,” he says. “Everything was determined by a computer model. We think that a lot of very important decisions were based on supposition and predictions, rather than actual fact.”

The problem, says Boyd, does not lie in whether or not transmission is possible. A 2010 study released by scientists at Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine has clearly shown that pneumonia-causing pathogens can travel between the two species. Instead, he says, the issue lies in the computer model on which the EIS decision was based, which assumed that incidental commingling between the species would result in disease transmission at a rate of 100 percent. “Nobody is saying that disease transmission cannot or does not occur, but if it was happening 100 percent of the time, there wouldn’t be any bighorn sheep left in the Western Hemisphere,” says Boyd. “Domestic sheep have been around for 200 years, and bighorns are still here.”

“They’re not endangered, they’re not threatened, they are a game animal and we hunt them throughout the western U.S.,” he adds.

In addition to scientific concerns, the lawsuit contends that the PNF decision violates the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act, as well as an earlier ruling by Winmill. In July of 2010, with the EIS decision looming, USFS accepted the findings of two committees regarding the risk of disease transmission. IWGA sued, contending that the committees had violated federal law by barring IW- GA participation on either committee, even denying them the right to observe committee meetings. This prevention, they claimed, resulted in a complete lack of representation by anyone engaged in domestic sheep management. Winmill agreed, ruling that the findings from both committees were not to be used in any future agency determinations. Despite that ruling, IWGA claims the eventual decision contained many elements from the committee findings. “In our opinion, (the EIS) ignored Judge Winmill’s ruling,” says Boyd. “In the final EIS, they used a lot of findings from those committees, which were basically handpicked by the Forest Service to get the answers they wanted.”

According to Boyd and IWGA, the EIS also ignored other factors on the range that influence domestic and bighorn contact. In particular, they point out that the influence of wolves is not addressed. Since the reintroduction of gray wolves, say IWGA members, sheep ranchers have faced wolves on their summer ranges every year. “If a rancher out there has a pack of wolves hounding their flocks all summer long,” points out Boyd, “it’s unlikely that bighorns are in the vicinity. But the computer models did not take into account this role that the wolf plays in maintaining separation.”

The goal of the current lawsuit, says Boyd, is to have the 2010 EIS decision rescinded. What that would mean for affected ranchers, however, is not entirely clear. “If we’re successful, it’s likely the judge would require the Forest Service to generate a new EIS,” says Boyd. “If they redo it, and use an un-jaundiced eye this time, it may be that they don’t need to take all those allotments out of production. We just don’t know.” — Jason Campbell, WLJ Correspondent