U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill issued a temporary restraining order that forces the U.S. Forest Service to protect 7,700 acres of bighorn sheep habitat this year.
Winmill made his ruling after a hearing Wednesday. His decision could force the Soulen Sheep Co. to keep its domestic sheep out of the area where they planned to graze their sheep on the forest next month.
The area was closed under a plan put in place in 2011 to protect the wild sheep from getting a deadly lung disease scientists say is transmitted from the domestic sheep to the bighorns.
Grazing allotments were to be reduced 70 percent by 2013 in a 2010 plan that angered sheep ranchers and the Idaho Legislature. It closed 54,000 acres in 2011 and eventually would kick domestic sheep off 70,000 acres, near Hell's Canyon and the Salmon River.
In response Rep. Mike Simpson inserted a rider into the Forest Service's 2012 budget forbidding the agency from spending money on grazing reductions beyond those already in place on July 1, 2011. Environmentalists presented Winmill documents showing that Payette National Forest officials argued the closures should continue as planned, despite Simpson's measure.
In a Jan. 6 memo Payette National Forest Supervisor Keith Lannom said his employees had begun implementing the grazing restrictions long before Simpson's deadline.