Payette decision upheld by Federal judge closes grazing
Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge A. Wallace Tashima ruled on March 25 to uphold the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) plan reducing domestic sheep grazing on the Payette National Forest by 70 percent.
The plan’s goal is to protect sheep from diseases resulting in Bighorn sheep from commingling.
“This decision comes as a great disappointment,” says Wyoming Wool Growers Association (WWGA) Executive Director Amy Hendrickson. “The court basically ruled that while there may have been uncertainties and omissions in the Forest Service’s analysis, none of them reached the level of a ‘clear error in judgment.’”
Additionally, Hendrickson explains that the court found dispute over modeling to be disputes over methodologies employed by the USFS, which do not constitute a violation of the National Environmental Policy Act.
A look back
The dispute stems back to 2007, when District Judge B. Lynn Winmill ordered ranchers to move sheep from five allotments on the forest. At that point, the USFS was ordered to complete an environmental impact statement (EIS) on sheep grazing in bighorn sheep habitats.
“The Wool Growers had used all its political might to try to delay and head off the USFS’s decision to close off the domestic sheep habitat, which came out of the EIS. Under pressure from Governor Butch Otter and lawmakers, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game clarified its policy to kill bighorn, if necessary, when they mix with domestic sheep,” reads an article in the Idaho Statesman.
In 2012, sheep ranchers in Idaho sued the USFS over the bighorn sheep protection plan announced in 2010. The 2010 plan reduced sheep grazing allotments on the national forest.
The Idaho Wool Growers Association, American Sheep Industry Association, Public Lands Council, WWGA and Colorado Wool Growers Association joined ranchers Carlson Company, Inc. and Shirts Brothers Sheep in their contention that the USFS did not adequately consider environmental consequences of the decision under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
Additionally, the groups alleged that other factors that may affect the bighorn sheep were not considered, including whether disease is transferred between bighorn and domestic sheep, the effect of wolves and if there are ways to increase bighorn sheep immunity.
The recent decision has been disappointing for ranchers. “The decision is rather shortsighted,” said Harry Soulen, president of the Idaho Wool Growers Association (IWGA) and owner of Soulen Livestock Company, based in Weiser, Idaho. “A number of us have lost our allotments or been forced out of the sheep business.”
Soulen added that the USFS is “running loose with their judgment of what they say science is” by blaming domestic sheep for the problem.
At this point, Soulen comments that he is unsure if the IWGA will appeal the ruling.
“We’ve got to study this before we make that decision one way or another,” he said.
The other side
While ag producers across the country are extremely concerned about the decision, The Wilderness Society, Western Watershed Project and Hells Canyon Preservation Council are claiming a victory in their efforts.
“The process undertaken by the Payette National Forest was long and involved a great deal of science and public input,” reads an article in The Wildlife News titled, “Big Win for Payette National Forest Bighorn Sheep.”
“This is a very significant win for bighorn sheep because it provides a precedent that other National Forests and BLM districts must follow,” The Wildlife News continues. “Indeed, Region Four of the U.S. Forest Service has embarked on a bighorn sheep risk assessment.”
Additionally, they report that sheep grazing allotments south of Marsing, Idaho have been changed from sheep grazing to cattle grazing “to protect the nearby bighorn sheep population.”
The precedent is alarming for many agriculture producers.
The Payette National Forest provides both excellent summer range for sheep and an ideal climate for bighorns.
However, bighorn sheep populations across Idaho have dropped to 3,500 – about half of what they were in 1990.
The Payette National Forest offers a wide range of grazing for domestic sheep ranging from 5,000 feet to 8,000 feet in elevation.
“It’s wonderful summer range,” Soulen describes, “with high altitude, good, green feed late into the year to late September. As feed in the lower elevations dries out, we keep working our way up to higher elevation where the good green feed is.”
The option to appeal is still available to the Wool Growers Associations and sheep producers.
“The parties involved, including the IWGA, the Colorado Wool Growers Association, the Public Lands Council and the WWGA, have not had any discussion as yet with regard to further action or possible appeals,” comments Hendrickson. “If it is determined that an appeal would be warranted, notice must be filed by May 27.”