Sheep industry relieved by experiment station’s rescue
A stay of execution on USDA’s intended shuttering of the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station at Dubois, Idaho, by the House Ag Appropriations Subcommittee has brought a sigh of relief to the U.S. sheep industry.
But it hasn’t unruffled all the feathers of what industry, state and local governments view as USDA’s surreptitious attempt to close down unique, century-old research at the facility.
Nonetheless, the focus now is embark on discussions with USDA and all stakeholders to secure the viability of the station so scientist there can continue important research, said Peter Orwick, executive director of the American Sheep Industry Association.
The sheep industry has been active for a number of years with a task force on the issue and submitting plans and options to USDA to update administration and research at the facility, he said.
Now it needs to make sure that happens and that USDA includes the industry, relative congressional delegations, governors, and county commissioners — all the folks USDA failed to provide with a heads up when requesting approval to reprogram funding away from the research station, he said.
USDA could try again to close the station in the future, but Congress has a long-standing policy of prohibiting USDA from shuttering Agricultural Research Service research stations, he said.
Now that Congress has specifically denied closing the Dubois facility, it provides a great opportunity to get a lot of people at the table to figure out how to best move forward, he said.
The second phase will be filling scientist positions that have lain vacant for years, despite the industry’s urging to fill them, he said.
USDA has claimed it didn’t have sufficient funds to fill those positions at the same time it was being sued by Western Watershed Project, he said.
The lawsuit involves alleged endangerment of grizzly bears and other predators due to domestic sheep conflict at the Dubois sheep station.
Dealing with legal actions has impacted the sheep station’s ability to do research, taking personnel away from research to respond to legal actions, said USDA-ARS Director of Information Sandy Miller Hays.
As of June 23, USDA has spent $1.5 million to respond to those environmental lawsuits. It is a drain on resources but was not the deciding factor in closing the facility, she said.
ASI President Clint Krebs, a sheep rancher in Enterprise, Ore., said he’s excited the station will remain operating.
In addition to vital sheep research, the station has provided decades of unique wildfire, rangeland and sagebrush steppe research, as well as data that can be used to help recover sage grouse populations, he said.
USDA’s surprise announcement of closing the facility was “really strange,” he said.
ASI had just met with ARS in May and specifically discussed the future of the research, he said.
Yet there was no talk of closing the station and USDA failed to give appropriate notice to Congress, the state and county or the sheep industry, he said.
“It was like someone just pulled an idea off the wall,” he said.
The announcement also came as a surprise to Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, who quickly solicited support from the Western Governors Association to send a strong message to USDA that Western governors will not tolerate such decisions affecting states’ economies being made without their involvement.
Congressional denial of USDA’s plan is “a victory for common sense,” said Otter Press Secretary Jon Hanian.
The research station has provided invaluable service and nearly 100 years of data and research, he said.