U.S. Sheep Station in Conflict with Wildlife

Yellowstone National Park and the surrounding national forests and wilderness areas of central Idaho are some of the nation’s wildest country. Two of the greatest wildlife habitats in this region are the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness and the Selway-Bitteroot Wilderness.

Photo by Steve Woodruff
Centennial Mountains. Photo by Steve Woodruff
Less than 300 miles separates these two ecosystems, creating a wildlife corridor used by wildlife such as grizzly bears. Grizzly bears often travel through the Centennial Mountains, which are a narrow east-west mountain range running along the Idaho-Montana border just to the west of Yellowstone National Park. Conservationists have been working for years to preserve and restore connectivity for wildlife in this area.

Grizzly bear
Grizzly bears need their wildlife corridors protected. Photo: USFWS
Unfortunately, there’s a cork in the Centennial bottle. Exactly one hundred years ago, the federal government established the U.S. Sheep Experimental Station, which looks at grazing domestic sheep as part of its research program. As the U.S. domestic sheep industry has declined, the need for the research conducted by the Station has become ever more obscure. Yet, the importance of the Centennial Mountains as wildlife habitat and as a wildlife corridor between the Greater Yellowstone and the Frank Church/ Selway-Bitteroot has grown.

For over a decade, the National Wildlife Federation and other conservation partners have worked to convince the U.S. Department of Agriculture to modify the Sheep Station’s grazing program to avoid grazing in the mountain pastures that are frequented by populations of grizzly bears, bighorn sheep, wolves and other wildlife.

Bighorn sheep
Bighorn sheep are negatively impacted by the U.S. Sheep Station. Photo by Steve Woodruff
In 2014, in response to wildlife concerns and a shrinking agricultural research budget, USDA announced that it would close the Sheep Station entirely and transfer the research to more modern facilities that were easier to staff. With this announcement, the battle shifted to Congress. Western Congressman, many of whom had voted for reduced federal budgets, rallied to save the handful of jobs provided by the Station and to defend what they perceived to be the interests of the western sheep industry. This debate has continued in the new Congress.

National Wildlife Federation and its affiliates, the Idaho Wildlife Federation and the Montana Wildlife Federation are working to convince Congress to resolve the conflict between wildlife and domestic sheep, if the Sheep Station is to stay in operation.

As part of this effort, Idaho Wildlife Federation board member Keith Lawrence wrote a powerful column that has recently appeared in a number of Idaho papers. Also, citizen advocates from Montana and Idaho will be traveling to Washington in June to meet with members of the Idaho and Montana congressional delegations.

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