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Ruling goes against US sheep experimental station in Idaho

July 2, 2021 GMT

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — U.S. officials and a sheep industry group have filed notices to appeal a federal court ruling involving an eastern Idaho sheep research facility long targeted by environmental groups concerned about the potential harm to grizzly bears and other wildlife.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and American Sheep Industry Association filed the notices late last month to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. A judge’s ruling in April prevents grazing in significant areas used by the Agriculture Department’s U.S. Sheep Experiment Station.

Grazing was suspended in 2013 following previous lawsuits by environmental groups contending the areas contain key wildlife habitat that is a corridor for grizzly bears between Yellowstone National Park and Glacier National Park. Conservation groups contend grizzly bears have been killed because of sheep station activities.

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The groups also say bighorn sheep, which can acquire deadly diseases from domestic sheep, and greater sage grouse use the area.

Grazing resumed following the release of a 2017 environmental impact statement considering the effects of sheep grazing on wildlife.

The Western Watersheds Project and two other groups filed a new lawsuit in early 2019 challenging the government’s decision allowing sheep owned by the University of Idaho to graze in the Centennial Mountains of Idaho and Montana.

A federal judge in April agreed with the environmental groups that the government hadn’t adequately examined all of the impacts with its 2017 environmental review.

“It’s really good news for wildlife that the sheep experimental station is basically down to its headquarters area, and they’re not going to be grazing sheep in the Centennial Mountains,” said Erik Molvar, the Western Watersheds Project’s executive director.

The sheep station is operated by the Agriculture Department’s Agricultural Research Service. The sheep station supports research using domestic sheep owned by the University of Idaho, some of it involving sheep grazing at higher altitudes.

Specifically, Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald E. Bush ruled the government hadn’t sufficiently examined the project’s potential effects on grizzly bears and bighorn sheep, and didn’t objectively analyze alternatives.

Bush ruled the government did adequately examine the effects on sage grouse.

The sheep station uses grazing allotments not belonging to the Agricultural Research Service. Bush ruled that the government didn’t adequately examine direct and indirect effects of sheep grazing on those allotments.

He said the government must review the project again in line with environmental laws, and until that review is complete, sheep grazing isn’t allowed in those areas.

The Agriculture Department has said that the sheep station conducts research on lands ranging from about 5,000 feet (1,524 meters) to nearly 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) in elevation.

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The “lands contain subalpine meadow, foothill, sagebrush steppe, and desert shrubland ecosystems,” the agency noted. “This diversity provides unparalleled research opportunities.”

The Sheep Experiment Station, based near Dubois, Idaho, has not only been targeted by environmental groups but has also been on the federal budget chopping block under the administrations of both President Barrack Obama and President Donald Trump.

Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, who represents the area, has played a crucial role in restoring funding.

“We’d like to see the sheep station converted into a research station that focuses on native ecosystems,” Molvar said.