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726’s disappearance has highlighted longstanding concerns in the environmental community over sheep grazing in the Centennials, specifically the grazing done by the USSES. Nonprofits sued the station before to conduct a full environmental impact statement, which was due out last summer and has yet to be released. Now the USSES is headed back to court, facing a demand for a new biological opinion and a temporary injunction against sheep grazing on its allotments in the Centennials. 726 is merely serving as a reminder of why plaintiffs have been so critical.
“I think we were already headed that way,” Meyer says of the litigation. “But this just reaffirmed the idea that they need to revisit whether sheep should be grazed in that area.”
Calls to USSES station manager Greg Lewis for comment in this story went unreturned.
Bill West suspects the targeting of the sheep station might be due to its historic silence. West says the USSES and Lewis tend to keep a low profile. If they wanted to change public opinion and avoid the blame game in situations like the disappearance of 726, they might want to “stand tall and be a savior to the sheep industry.”
“I think that’s become a problem,” West says. “They’re back on their heels too much, and nobody’s got a view of them on this side of the mountains as part of the community.”
That silence would seem to explain why the station has long been the center of rumors and conspiracy theories. The draft environmental impact statement for the USSES references past studies that estimate “a substantial amount of grizzly bear mortality might occur from unreported sheep-grizzly bear conflicts and subsequent poaching of grizzly bears (by sheep herders) in order to reduce economic losses. To some extent, the belief that this still occurs and is applicable to the Sheep Station activities persists in the small towns and restaurants that surround the Centennial Mountains.” The document does, however, add that unreported grizzly mortalities on the USSES “are unlikely to occur today.”
What Hagenbarth now fears, amid the fallout from 726’s disappearance, is a push to the other extreme: giving wildlife precedence over people. Environmentalists are targeting the USSES for now. Hagenbarth is convinced that he’s next. He says there’s plenty of room for both ranchers and an expanding grizzly population, but feels that the disappearance of one bear will eventually be used to push him off the land. “I can’t afford to spend a lot of money fighting them,” he says.
Meyer insists that’s not the end goal. What happened to 726 “wasn’t terribly surprising,” he says, again doubting the law enforcement perspective that 726 could still be out there, alive and collarless. But Cottonwood and other environmental firms already had their concerns with the USSES.
“We’ve never said that we’re against all grazing, and we’re not,” Meyer says. “I’m all for keeping small operations on the landscape. I don’t want to put people out of work … That’s not what I’m interested in. But I’m also not interested in people doing things they shouldn’t be doing, hurting grizzly bears. There’s a balance that needs to be struck, and if the sheep station has to stop grazing in the Centennials, it doesn’t mean they have to shut down their entire operation. They have other allotments that are outside of grizzly use areas. We’ve never said that the entire sheep station should be shut down.”
Whether or not the Centennials remain home to livestock, grizzlies are already here. Signs at the Odell Creek trailhead explicitly warn visitors to be wary of bears. 726 isn’t the first to attempt to navigate this area. He won’t be the last.