Letters From the West

Federal judge upholds Payette bighorn sheep protections

Bighorn sheep look down on the Snake River from Hells Canyon National Recreation Area.(Idaho Statesman file photo)

Bighorn sheep look down on the Snake River from Hells Canyon National Recreation Area.(Idaho Statesman file photo)

A federal judge upheld the decision by the Payette National Forest to close 70 percent of the forest to domestic sheep grazing to protect wild bighorn sheep.

U.S. 9th Circuit Judge Wallace Tashima denied a motion by the Idaho Wool Growers Association to overturn the 2010 decision by Payette National Forest Supervisor Suzanne Rainville aimed at separating domestic and bighorn sheep. Tashima ruled the Forest Service had followed the preponderance of evidence that domestic sheep carry diseases to the wild sheep populations.

The dispute began in 2007 when District Judge B. Lynn Winmill ordered ranchers to move their sheep off of five allotments on the Payette National Forest in Hells Canyon. The Forest Service was ordered to complete an environmental impact statement on sheep grazing in bighorn habitat.

Ketchum's annual Trailing of the Sheep Festival honors Idaho's long, rich ranching tradition.(Idaho Statesman file photo)

Ketchum’s annual Trailing of the Sheep Festival honors Idaho’s long, rich ranching tradition.(Idaho Statesman file photo)

The Wool Growers had used all its political might to try to delay and head off the Forest Service’s decision to close off the domestic sheep habitat, which came out of the EIS. Under pressure from Gov. Butch Otter and lawmakers, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game clarified its policy to kill bighorns if necessary when they mix with domestic sheep.

Three sheep ranchers – the Shirts Brothers, Carlson Co. and the Soulens – were affected by the decision and participated in the lawsuit. The Colorado Wool Growers Association also joined in the lawsuit because it has the most overlap between wild bighorn habitat and domestic sheep.

The Forest Service’s policy of doing a risk assessment of possible contact between domestic and wild sheep is now supported in federal court, said Craig Gehrke, Wilderness Society Idaho representative, who fought for the ruling for years to protect bighorns in the Hells Canyon Recreation Area.

The other area where this could have an impact in Idaho is in the Palisades Mountains and Tetons in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest. There, Idaho Republican Sen. Jeff Siddoway and his family have grazed sheep for generations.

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

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Posted in Letters from the West