USDA approves proposal to close sheep station in Centennial Mountains

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Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved a proposal from its Agricultural Research Service to close down the 100-year-old U.S. Sheep Experiment Station headquartered in Dubois, Idaho. Conservationists have increasingly criticized the station’s grazing of domestic sheep in the Centennial Mountains in recent years, claiming the activity has a detrimental effect on the Greater Yellowstone Area’s expanding grizzly bear population. Just this week, four environmental groups filed a lawsuit against the USSES relating in part to the disappearance of the collared Grizzly 726 on a high altitude grazing allotment in fall 2012. Congress is now in the midst of a 30-day comment period on the closure proposal.

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  • Courtesy Cottonwood Environmental Law Center

Sandy Miller Hays, director of information at ARS, says the decision to propose closing the station is not related to any of the past or present litigation brought forth by the conservation community. ARS has been facing budget difficulties for years, she says, and some of the agency’s management units and locations across the country have “gotten to the point to where, from a financial standpoint, they’re either marginally viable or they’re just not sustainable.” She was unaware exactly where the USSES—which has a budget of $1.9 million for 2015—fell on that spectrum.

“As of June 23, 2014, we have spent more than $1.5 million … on responding to the legal challenges at the location,” Hays says of the station. “But dealing with those legal actions was not the deciding factor in deciding to close the location.”

Hays adds 14 USSES employees will be reassigned to other ARS locations nationwide. The Idaho Falls Post Register quoted a June 17 letter from U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., stating the closure would go into effect Nov. 3. That letter reportedly said that 17 of 21 full-time employees at the station would be offered reassignment. The USSES website also indicates there are currently 21 full-time employees there.

How the proposal will impact the latest suit by Cottonwood Environmental Law Center and others remains to be seen. CELC Executive Director John Meyer told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle today that if the station proceeds with sheep grazing in the Centennials this summer, the groups will proceed with litigation regardless of the closure.

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