Today, Judge B. Lynn Winmill ruled from the bench against the U.S. Forest Service and in favor of native bighorn sheep getting the protection they need from disease-carrying domestic sheep on the Payette National Forest this year !
The federal case hinged on the agency's interpretation of a legislative rider written by Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID) and passed into law last winter that forbid the use of funds to carry out any new management restrictions not in existence on July 2011. Because this year's sheep allotment closures were part of a phased approach approved prior to the rider deadline, Western Watersheds Project and our co-plaintiffs were sure that these existing "management restrictions" were safe from congressional meddling.
Unfortunately, and as Judge Winmill himself described it, the Forest Service "cherry picked" its interpretation of the rider language when it decided to authorize sheep turn out in 2012. The result of this misinterpretation would have been to turn more domestic sheep out in bighorn habitat in July, putting bighorn sheep at an increased and unacceptable level of risk.
The Forest Service built its case by trying to change the wording of the rider from "existed" to "implemented," but Western Watersheds Project's attorney Laurie Rule of Advocates for the West's Boise Office, successfully argued that the plain language of the rider meant that sheep grazing should be halted this year, in accordance with fully-considered decision issued in 2010 and early 2011. Judge Winmill agreed, saying that the agency's interpretation was not reasonable.
The judge's ruling means that three more allotments in prime bighorn habitat on the Payette National Forest will be free of the threats posed by domestic sheep grazing in 2012.
Thank you Laurie Rule and congratulations to our co-plaintiffs Hells Canyon Preservation Council and The Wilderness Society !
Western Watersheds Project is happy to share some good news from eastern Idaho: the Bureau of Land Management has cancelled its Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Agriculture Research Service of U.S. Department of Agriculture regarding domestic sheep grazing on the Bernice allotment. This allotment is part of the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station (USSES) operations near Dubois, Idaho, and the cancellation of the MOU pending completion of National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis of the allotment by the BLM eliminates grazing of domestic sheep in this foothill area of the southern Lemhi Mountain Range.
Western Watersheds Project has been informed that it is unlikely the agency will prioritize such NEPA analysis of the Bernice allotment meaning that grazing on the allotment by any domestic livestock will not occur for the foreseeable future.
Recent bighorn sheep radio collaring data has shown bighorn presence on the Bernice allotment in places and times of year when contact with domestic sheep from the Sheep Experiment Station is likely. Bighorn sheep are at risk of fatal disease transmission from domestic sheep on the BLM Bernice Allotment and this risk is the reason that the BLM cancelled the MOU with the Sheep Station.
This cancellation is also a significant boon for native wildlife, because the Bernice allotment and the other lands used by the USSES are used as dispersal corridors for wolves, grizzly bears, bighorn sheep, wolverines, and moth other native species require these landscapes to establish and maintain connectivity between habitat in Yellowstone and Central Idaho.
Western Watersheds Project and the Center for Biological Diversity sued the 97-year old USSES for their failure to conduct an environmental analysis of their operations. A draft Environmental Impact Statement is underway, but this change in management of the Bernice allotment sends the signal that wildlife concerns are going to be taken seriously by regional land managers. We hope the USSES takes the hint and proposes complete closure of this failed experiment.