Another place where budget realities may hit western ranchers is in a little known tract of public land that stands in the middle of one of the most important wildlife corridors in the Northern Rockies.
The U.S. Sheep Experiment Station at Dubois has an annual budget of $2.25 million to conduct research on the 28,000 acres of mountain meadows in the Centennial Mountains. The range marks the Idaho border with Montana and runs west from Sawtelle Peak and Henry’s Lake.
I rode a horse through the station’s high mountain meadows in 1987 with the U.S. Forest Service as we checked out this remarkable range. It is closed to the public but it abuts national forest and Bureau of Land Management lands.Photo of grizzly taken this fall on O'Dell Creek at Red Rocks National Wildlife Refuge near Sheep Station
With about 30 researchers and staff it conducts mostly genetic research designed to make sheep more productive. Since sheep in the West are mostly grazed in mountain ranges like the Centennials the Agricultural Research Service that runs the station argues it needs the mountain grazing to serve its research.
But a growing number of conservation groups consider that hogwash. The National Wildlife Federation has been working cooperatively with sheep ranchers for more than a decade in the surrounding national forests to retire the sheep grazing in grizzly bear habitat, with the support and backing of another federal agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
They want the upper elevation grazing areas retired for good so that grizzly bear, Canada lynx and other endangered species can pass through the bottleneck that the sheep station may present. They aren’t pushing to close the sheep station; they just want them to feed them in feedlots where they won’t present a threat to bears and bighorn sheep.
The Sheep Station is in the middle of an environmental review where for the first time since it opened in 1918, it must defend its mission against the environmental threat it presents. Some environmental groups want them to close and spend the budget on something else they think more important.
They point out that station’s flocks are spread invasive plants like leafy spurge across the landscape, require miles and miles of fence that make wildlife travel harder and aren’t really important for the sheep industry anymore. Representatives of the industry say its work is still important not only to the industry but to a nation that needs cheap food.
Its challenge is that in these times even good defensible government programs are getting cut.