A federal judge sided with environmental groups in April against the USDA Agriculture Research Service (ARS), which sought to reauthorize and expand sheep grazing at the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station in the Centennial Mountains on the Idaho-Montana border.
The ruling follows a 2019 lawsuit by Western Watersheds Project, WildEarth Guardians and Center for Biological Diversity. The groups sued to stop the July 2018 record of decision reauthorizing grazing, stating the government “failed to analyze the direct and indirect effects” on bighorn sheep, grizzly bears and other species, which is a violation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Administrative Procedure Act (APA).
The sheep station supports research with sheep owned by the University of Idaho and was established by President Woodrow Wilson in 1915. The station lies on approximately 48,330 acres ranging from 5,000-10,000 feet in elevation and consists of the Humphrey and Henninger Ranches and the East and West Summer Ranges—located in and around the Upper Snake River Plain and the Centennial Mountains.
The Centennials run east-west along the Idaho-Montana border and connect Yellowstone National Park and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, making it a corridor for wildlife species. ARS also has access to an additional 20,000 acres administered by U.S. Forest Service and Department of Energy through a memorandum of understanding.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald Bush ruled that ARS acted “arbitrarily and capriciously under the APA by failing to take the required hard look mandated by NEPA at the impacts of the project.” Bush stated ARS failed to consider the impacts on the non-ARS allotments; the effects on bighorn sheep and grizzly bears; and “objectively analyzing” the alternatives. Bush noted there were “various inconsistencies that could be interpreted as supporting plaintiffs’ position. This includes the evaluation of the offered—and ultimately discarded —alternatives.”
In 2018, ARS released its final environmental impact statement (FEIS) following a settlement with environmental groups. The settlement stated that high elevation grazing would be suspended until a full environmental review could be completed. At the time of the lawsuit, the groups asserted grizzly bears were being killed due to sheep station activities and it is a wildlife corridor for the bears and other animals. The preferred alternative adopted by ARS in the FEIS resumed grazing on both ARS and non-ARS lands. However, the FEIS failed to consider the direct and indirect effects on non-ARS lands, citing a NEPA analysis for grazing on the non-ARS allotments already exists.
“The court’s decision is welcome news for grizzly bear and bighorn sheep in the Centennial Mountains and Greater Yellowstone ecosystem,” said Laird Lucas of Advocates for the West, lead attorney for the plaintiff groups. “The risks of harm from experimenting with domestic sheep grazing in this vital habitat are just too large. The court rightly held that a full disclosure of the risks is needed, in compliance with bedrock environmental laws.”
Bush rejected the environmental groups’ claims that ARS did not adequately look at the effects on the sage-grouse population. The court remanded the case back to ARS to determine the impact on wildlife populations consistent with APA and NEPA.
In the interim, the sheep station will be allowed to graze sheep at the sheep station’s headquarters north of Dubois, ID, and the Mud Lake feedlot, but not on non-ARS lands or on summer pastures in the Centennial Mountains. — Charles Wallace, WLJ editor