Lava Lake Land & Livestock of Hailey, Idaho, has permanently retired four of its sheep grazing allotments on more than 88,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service land north and northeast of Ketchum.
Those allotments include the North Fork Boulder and Trail Creek allotments in the Big Wood River watershed of the Sawtooth National Forest and the Park Creek and Northfork allotments in the Big Lost River watershed of the Salmon-Challis National Forest.
The permanent retirements were facilitated by the Sagebrush Habitat Conservation Fund, a nonprofit organization founded by the Western Watersheds Project and the El Paso Corp. in 2010 to encourage and accomplish voluntary retirement of public lands grazing permits.
Lava Lake Land & Livestock currently runs two bands of sheep — roughly 1,800 ewes and their lambs — on 24,000 acres of private land and 787,000 acres of public land in Idaho — not including the retired allotments.
The company typically uses at least two of the allotments each year, said Brian Bean, owner of Lava Lake Land & Livestock with his wife, Kathleen.
The operation has plenty of other ground to run sheep, and retiring the allotments was entirely voluntary, he said.
“We have a conservation ethos at Lava Lake,” he said.
The company has permanently protected more than 20,000 acres of its deeded land through conservation easements and has completed scores of restoration and research projects on the private and public lands it uses.
Retiring the allotments fit its goal as ranchers and conservationists to permanently protect sensitive lands — a goal it shares with the Sagebrush Habitat Conservation Fund, Bean said.
And “there’s an aspect to this that is important in terms of risk mitigation,” he said.
In 2010, the Payette National Forest issued a final decision reducing domestic sheep and goat grazing by nearly 69,000 acres to mitigate the risk of disease transmission to Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep.
Idaho Wool Growers Association said the ruling would shut down 70% of sheep grazing in the Payette. The association, other industry groups and individual ranchers sued the Forest Service, but the decision has upheld in court.
That decision resulted in the closure of several higher-elevation allotments. Portions of Lava Lake’s allotments in the Boulder and Pioneer mountains are also relatively high, he said.
The Sawtooth National Recreation Area and Jerry Peak Wilderness Additions Act of 2015 requires the Forest Service and BLM to accept permit donations of allotments that are at least partially within an area established by the act, which includes the allotments waived by Lava Lake.
“We had an opportunity to do that, and we did,” he said.
“Lava Lake has protocols in place to protect bighorn sheep and has never had a problem. And there is no evidence that Lava Lake sheep have ever transmitted disease to bighorns in the 20 years the company has been in operation,” he said.
“But the Payette decision is out there and set the stage (for government closure of allotments),” he said.
“We preferred an orderly process that was thoughtful and resulted in a conclusion we had a hand in crafting as opposed to just mandated,” he said.
When asked if Lava Lake had been compensated for retiring the grazing permits, Bean said he has an arrangement with Sagegrouse Habitat Conservation Fund but all of the company's business matters are confidential.
Jon Marvel, vice president of the Sagegrouse Habitat Conservation Fund, said in a press release the organization appreciates the mutual collaboration with the Beans “to accomplish this conservation benefit for native fish and wildlife as well as for citizens who enjoy recreating on our shared public lands.”
Marvel said Lava Lake was compensated but declined further comment.