BILLINGS – A federal judge on Friday sided with conservation groups who said allowing domestic sheep to graze in a mountain range along the Idaho-Montana border as part of a government agriculture program could harm grizzly bears and other wildlife.
Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald Bush ordered officials not to graze sheep in the disputed area of the Centennial Mountains pending further government review of the effects on grizzlies and bighorn sheep, a wild species that suffers periodic die-offs after catching viruses from domestic sheep.
Bush chided officials for using “misleading statements” to downplay the risks of grazing to threatened bear populations.
The Western Watersheds Project and two other groups filed a lawsuit in February 2019 challenging a decision to allow sheep owned by the University of Idaho to graze in the Centennial range.
Justice Department attorneys had argued that officials correctly followed environmental laws in authorizing sheep grazing at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Sheep Experiment Station. The station conducts research on lands ranging from about 5,000 feet to nearly 10,000 feet in elevation.
Grazing was suspended in 2013 following previous lawsuits by environmental groups contending the areas contain key wildlife habitat that is a corridor for grizzly bears between Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho. Conservation groups contend grizzly bears have been killed because of sheep station activities.
The Agriculture Department completed an environmental analysis in 2018 as required by previous lawsuits and later approved a resumption of grazing. Friday’s ruling means grazing can continue only in some areas, including the station’s headquarters near Dubois, Idaho, according to the plaintiffs.
“It’s time to take a much closer look at this ‘experiment’ and honestly weigh the impacts on the region’s iconic wildlife against the limited value the domestic sheep station provides,” said Sarah McMillan, with WildEarth Guardians, one of the plaintiffs in the case.
The Department of Agriculture did not immediately respond to the ruling.
Bush rejected the conservation groups’ claims that officials did not look closely enough at grazing’s effects on sage grouse, a ground-dwelling bird.
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