The wind blows, the sagebrush shakes, and a flock of studied domestic sheep bleats along the trail, munching native plants — a peaceful, pastoral scene.
Yet the century-old U.S. Sheep Experiment Station near Dubois, Idaho — just across the border from southwest Montana — has been the center of significant controversy over the years.
Historically, the U.S. Department of Agriculture station ranged its flock in summer pastures on Agricultural Research Service and U.S. Forest Service allotments in the Centennial Mountains on either side of the Montana-Idaho border, home to majestic peaks and extraordinary wildlife habitat.
Many livestock operations have been decommissioned in the greater area in recent years, but the sheep station has fought to keep its grazing foothold.
Conservation groups have challenged the practice in lawsuits since 2007. Yet on April 16 a federal judge ruled the station failed to adequately address the flock’s potential impact on grizzly bears and bighorn sheep, legally prohibiting grazing of the Centennial pastures, already on hold due to prior agreements.
Consequently, the flock of 2,200 sheep is now mainly restricted to the station’s 28,000-acre headquarters near Dubois.
When the ruling came down in April, the victors celebrated with fervor.
“We’re elated the court found that USDA officials didn’t properly evaluate sheep grazing’s harm to the environment and wildlife like grizzly bears in the Centennials,” said Andrea Zaccardi, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the parties that brought the suit. “It’s time for the federal government to revisit the utility of this archaic and damaging sheep station and shut it down for good.”
Bret Taylor, the station’s director, said the sheep station was founded with the express purpose of breeding and studying sheep and the natural landscape to promote ecological harmony between them, and noted that range operations use less fossil fuel than intensive factory agriculture.
“Our goal has always been to produce sheep that balance with the sustainable ecosystem,” he said. "If you have a particular ecosystem that you’re deriving a product from, you don’t want to overuse that resource."
The sheep station has faced challenges beyond the lawsuits. During funding crunches it was nearly axed under the Obama and Trump administrations.
Yet the operation survived, largely due to the support of Idaho Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson. Today, the station has an increased program budget, and Simpson recently secured $4.2 million to modernize the headquarters’ ancient infrastructure.
Meanwhile, up in the Centennial Mountains a study of ecosystem recovery during the grazing moratorium is underway.
It’s too early to tell if the fight to graze in the Centennials is over, however.
In June, the USDA and the American Sheep Industry Association filed notice to appeal the April decision. Due to confidentiality, lawyers on both sides were unable to say whether the appeal will go forward.
Whatever happens, research continues at the sheep station.
During a tour of the operation in early June, Taylor eyed the building clouds and distant lightning strikes in the sky. After all, fire is part of science at the station.
Through controlled and natural burns, the USDA researches how fast the lower elevation tri-tip sagebrush and higher elevation mountain big sagebrush communities recover post-fire, and how recovery differs if grazed by sheep at various rest intervals.
The Bureau of Land Management uses the research to judge how long a sage community needs to rest before grazing resumes after a fire, Taylor said.
Researchers also conduct long-running studies on forage recovery after grazing.
Plant density and diversity affect sage grouse, Taylor said, a key species on the landscape and one targeted in the lawsuit against the station.
The sheep station is old enough to boast studies based on 70 years of burning, grazing and sampling, and Taylor said the combined research shows that light sheep grazing actually improves sage grouse habitat and prolongs the optimal nesting window.
Targeted grazing to manage invasive species like spotted knapweed and wildfire fuel is being seriously evaluated in the time of climate change. Taylor and University of Idaho researchers are studying an interesting new angle — taste.
Different sheep show different dietary preferences — for shrubs or bitter plants, for example — and the researchers are looking at the gene structures behind the preferences. The implication is that sheep could be bred for targeted grazing based on their genetic makeup.
But the sheep station isn’t out to breed furry weed trimmers alone. In its long history, the station has fine-tuned predominant sheep breeds in the West, and productivity still counts — the station breeds sheep for their food and wool value, so the science has to look at human tastes as well.
"Is that end product actually going to be marketable out to people?” Taylor said. "Say we have this animal that likes to consume spotted knapweed — but how does that taste? Is that something that adds value to the product later?"
Some of the station’s research is aimed at making landscapes more friendly to livestock — evaluating various chemical treatments of lupine, for example. Lupine often blooms in droves after fire, but is toxic to livestock, especially sheep.
Driving through the sage, Taylor said the lands are grazed briefly once a year.
“You’ll be hard pressed to drive off this property and find habitat in this good of condition with this level of diversity,” he said. "So that’s the funny thing, we’ve been manipulating this land for experimental purposes."
It’s not the lower sagebrush steppe at the headquarters that caused the long legal clash between conservationists and the sheep station — it’s the high summer pastures in the Centennial Mountains in Idaho and Montana, and the grizzly bears and bighorn sheep that roam there.
In the April decision, Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald E. Bush said the project’s Final Environmental Impact Statement was sometimes misleading in its assessment of potential impact to grizzly bears, and that defendants used livestock-grizzly conflict data from times when sheep weren’t present to project the likelihood of conflicts when sheep would be present.
Bush added that the defendants made inaccurate use of data from grizzlies collared by the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
The judge also recognized the threat to bighorns.
“North America has lost over 90% of its bighorn sheep and most remaining herds are small and vulnerable,” he wrote. "In part, this is because bighorn sheep are susceptible to respiratory disease caused by pathogens spread by domestic sheep."
The defendants’ claim that the closest bighorns are 20 miles from the grazing allotments was contradictory to the map and data provided by the defendants themselves in the FEIS, Bush said.
“At best, this is inconsistent, incomplete and/or confusing; at worst, it evidences cherry-picked data,” Bush said in his opinion.
However, the judge found the assessment adequately addressed sage grouse.
Taylor, during the tour, pointed to a high instance of hunters killing grizzlies in self-defense in the field. The sheep station has long been criticized for not allowing the public to hunt on its properties.
In 2017, hunters accounted for self-defense kills of 17 bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem compared to 10 bears killed due to livestock depredation — all cattle related — according to the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee report.
However, as bears expand their range and population, the number of mortalities related to livestock has increased. Of known causes documented in the GYE, 16 were killed due to livestock depredations in 2019 and 17 in 2020. In those two years, three bears were killed on sheep operations.
Taylor said there hasn’t been an actual conflict with grizzly bears on the property. Conservation groups often point to the collar of a grizzly found on sheep station property in the Centennials in 2012 as evidence of a possible conflict.
Taylor offered his two cents on bighorns, too.
“I’ll put it this way. Are bighorns an endangered species? Are they a threatened species? No. What is the main driver of bighorn populations? People want to shoot them,” he said, adding that he’s an avid elk hunter himself.
“But at the same time, that overriding demand and force from the public is strong enough that yes, agriculture enterprises have to adjust,” he added.
It’s not only conservation and hunting groups that sounded the alarm on the station’s use of the Centennials, however.
In 2012, federal and state agencies — including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, Idaho Fish and Game, and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks — sent a joint letter to the sheep station asking the USDA not to graze sheep in the Centennials.
In a 2016 letter to U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, members of the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission stressed that they did not oppose private grazing on public lands, but said, “The Centennial pastures are used merely as a source of forage for government-owned domestic sheep, not as a focus of research.”
In that letter, the commission stressed what conservation groups are emphasizing now: “Montanans have made significant commitments and sacrifices to restore and conserve grizzly bears and other wildlife in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and Southwestern Montana.”
Connectivity is at stake, said Erik Molvar, wildlife biologist and executive director of the Western Watersheds Project, one of the groups that filed suit against the sheep station.
“The Centennial Mountains are the linchpin in habitat linkage for grizzly bears between the Selway-Bitterroot core area and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. And the sheep station sits astride this linkage, and keeps the Yellowstone grizzly bears isolated by essentially cutting off the dispersal corridor,” he said.
The sheep station and pro-hunting conservation group The Wild Sheep Foundation have something in common — they are both contributing to research on the archenemy of bighorns — the Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae bacteria.
Stephen White, at Washington State University, is using the sheep station flock to establish a genetic fine-mapping program and figure out which genes are associated with the bacteria known to cause respiratory disease in domestics that has the potential to devastate bighorn herds.
The study will test sheep multiple times over the course of a year, because sheep can carry or shed the bacteria only briefly. Some are obviously sick, Taylor said.
"And then you see those that are the Typhoid Marys — it has no effect on them, but every time Mary shows up at the party, 50 people go home and have dysentery for three or four weeks," he said.
Researchers hope the genetic data can be used to guide breeding.
Taylor said he would like to see the science used beyond domestics.
“I also hope that research is usable by people who are focused specifically on bighorn sheep,” he said.
Nick Gevock, conservation director at the Montana Wildlife Federation, said the disease research is valuable, but it’s still no justification for ranging sheep in the Centennials where they could spread the disease to bighorns in the meantime.
Molvar called the research “a fool’s errand.”
“You can’t win an arms race against a microbe that can breed with generation times in days and weeks," he said. "As soon as you find a cure, they’re going to evolve a defense to defeat it. It just seems impossible.”
The other research being done at the sheep station isn’t worth the federal dollars it takes to conduct it, Gevock said.
“I just think they're looking for justification for their existence, really," Gevock said, remembering how close the station was to being shuttered in the past — not to protect wildlife, but for efficiency. “There needs to be some efficiency in government.”
Molvar said there are plenty of large agricultural research centers that don’t pose a risk to sensitive environments.
“If you’re breeding sheep that can survive better in native ecosystems, you’re going to have more sheep in native ecosystems. That’s not a good thing,” he said.
Taylor countered that the research conducted fits current scientific trends.
“Climate change, water resources, vegetation stability, invasive weeds — the congressional appropriations have been steadily increasing,” he said.
Rep. Simpson said he’s continually raised funds for the operation because he stands behind the sheep industry and the research.
“The sheep station has over 100 years of climate and rangeland data, and over 50 years of sage grouse data," Simpson said. "This data set is irreplaceable. The sheep station is the only range type operation of its kind in the U.S. and is uniquely situated to look at real world solutions that are applicable to sheep and livestock producers throughout the west, across the country and internationally.”
Taylor said funding is up now, but public opinion has to be factored into the research direction. He recently hired an ecologist with a background in sociology.
“It’s society that’s dictating the movement of these particular landscapes," he said. "It’s time that we start considering that as a component of our research strategies.”
Molvar said society has spoken already.
“The taxpayers have a real interest in healthy native ecosystems on public lands," he said. "The taxpayers have no interest at all in propping up private sheep ranchers using the public lands to prop up their profit margins and degrade the lands and wildlife at the same time. That’s just simply not in the public interest."