Western Watersheds Project and WildEarth Guardians are challenging a U.S. Forest Service decision to allow fall and winter grazing of domestic sheep in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest.
The groups claim the grazing would expose a small population of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep to diseases carried by domestic sheep that would likely extirpate the wild herd.
The lawsuit — filed by Advocates for the West in U.S. District Court in Idaho — targets authorization of grazing on the Snakey Canyon and Kelly Canyon allotments west of Dubois in eastern Idaho.
The allotments are permitted to the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station, a century-old research facility that grazes sheep owned by the University of Idaho. Part of its mission is to improve the sustainability of rangeland ecosystems.
The sheep station is authorized to graze 1,200 dry ewes on the Snakey allotment from Nov. 6 through Jan. 2 and 1,000 dry ewes on the Kelly allotment from Nov. 20 to Jan. 3.
The groups have also filed a motion for a temporary restraining order to halt the grazing.
They are requesting the court order the Forest Service to close the allotments until the agency completes an assessment, initiated in 2015, to determine the environmental impacts of grazing in the area.
At issue is the possible transmission of a pathogen that causes pneumonic die-offs within bighorn populations.
The lawsuit cites court precedent acknowledging the high risk of disease transmission and the ordered or approved closures of numerous sheep allotments in Idaho.
One case resulted in the closure of 70 percent of the Payette National Forest to domestic sheep grazing, following a court-ordered analysis under the National Environmental Protection Act. That analysis determined that best management practices are not sufficient to prevent contact and disease transmission.
The groups contend authorizing domestic sheep grazing before the Forest Service completes its environmental analysis of the Snakey and Kelly allotments violates NEPA.
The agency is required by NEPA to “look before they leap” due to the concern of disease transmission, said Scott Lake, Idaho director for the Western Watersheds Project.
It only takes one incident of contact to wipe out an entire herd because bighorn have no natural immunity to the pathogen. They didn’t evolve with it, and it’s not endemic in the herd, he said.
“Given the size of this herd, it won’t take much to reduce the population to the level extinction is imminent,” he said.
The population in question stood at 36 in 2016 and has been as small as 13 in recent years. It only takes losing a few individuals to get to the point where the herd can’t repopulate itself, he said.
The Forest Service deemed the risk of disease transmission unacceptable in its decision on the Payette. The environmental groups are hoping the judge is going to recognize the unacceptable risk and potential for irreparable harm to the eastern Idaho herd, he said.
“We have science on our side and some precedent, too,” he said.
Both the precedent and the science behind it are questionable, said Cindy Siddoway, an industry leader, who with her husband runs a sixth-generation sheep operation of 10,000 breeding stock in the area.
The best science and best modeling available weren’t used in the Payette decision, and the Forest Service acknowledged it did not consult with everyone, she said.
“We really don’t have the final science on this,” she said.
It’s not black and white, she said, adding that there are bighorn die-offs in places without domestic sheep. The sheep industry believes there are other factors involved that trigger die-offs, such as stress, genes, immunity levels and bighorn carriers.
Disease transmission has occurred in research where bighorn interact with penned domestic sheep in a staged setting, but that’s not necessarily what would happen in the wild, she said.
“Just keeping them (domestic sheep) away is not going to solve the problem. We need to know what the triggers are … why some die and some don’t,” she said.
Unfortunately, environmental groups pick and choose the science and decisions made on that selective science set faulty precedent, which leads to more wrong decisions, she said.
“The environmental groups use this as an excuse to stop grazing. We expect lawsuits; that’s how they make their living,” she said.
But it’s picking off sheep producers one by one, and there aren’t many left, she said.
The lawsuit is also another attack on the Sheep Station, a unique facility sheep producers strongly support. It’s a living laboratory that can’t be duplicated, with at least 80 years of research into multi-species grazing, wildlife interaction, sage grouse recovery and wildfire restoration, she said.
It’s exactly the kind of research needed to resolve wildlife conflict. Sound science is needed to protect bighorns and domestic sheep. Until then, there are recommended best management practices to keep the species separated, she said.
Sheep don’t go unattended as the environmental groups claim in the lawsuit; herders are with them 24/7. And there are other recommended practices to create barriers, she said.
But environmental groups don’t want that. They want the sheep removed, she said.