E. Idaho sheep station could close later this year

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho — A U.S. Sheep Experiment Station in eastern Idaho that is being sued by environmental groups could close later this year.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack recently informed Congress of the decision to shut down the facility north of Dubois on Nov. 3.

“A prolonged period of declining and flat budgets has resulted in underfunded programs at (the sheep experiment station), and the unit no longer has the critical mass of scientists necessary to address high priority research,” Vilsack said in the letter.

If the station closes, about 21 full-time employees will lose their jobs.

“We want to keep it open,” said Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter. “The sheep business is big business in Idaho and will continue to be big business in Idaho, we hope.”

On Friday, Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, and Rep. Greg Walden, R-Oregon, sent a letter asking the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture to stop the closure by the Agricultural Research Service.

Simpson said the closure “would have a substantial impact on the western sheep industry.” He also said he was concerned “that people involved in the industry were not consulted before ARS made this decision.”

Walden said, “No other station conducts research into the unique challenges that confront sheep producers in Oregon and across the west, like grazing techniques, diseases, or developing new breeds.”

The station is the target of a lawsuit filed in June by environmental groups who contend at least one grizzly bear has died because of the sheep station.

Grizzly bears are listed as a threatened species. The bears inhabit the nearby area in and around Yellowstone National Park in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, which are among the major sheep producing states.

“What Vilsack didn’t say was that the Sheep Experiment Station had also become a legal liability,” Travis Bruner, executive director of the Idaho-based Western Watersheds Project, said in a statement. “Our repeated and successful litigation over the ecological impacts of the project surely influenced the decision to end the failing experiment once and for all. It’s too bad they’ve waited this long.”

The group as well as the Cottonwood Environmental Law Center and the Gallatin Wildlife Association, both based in Montana, sued following a May 31 biological assessment by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that reported no encounters between grizzly bears and humans have occurred on Sheep Station property in the Centennial Mountains.

The groups dispute that, citing the finding of a GPS collar hidden in a creek on the property. The Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team found it in September 2012 after it emitted a “death” signal.

Investigators determined the collar had been cut off, and they found a shotgun shell casing nearby where sheep had been grazing. The bear was never found and no charges were filed. The collar had been attached to a young grizzly just a few weeks earlier.

The Sheep Center represents about 5 percent of the full-time jobs in Clark County.

“It’s just another huge knock,” said Velvet Killian, Clark County clerk.

Congress has a 30-day window, which started June 20, to voice support of opposition.

Lindsay Nothern, communications director for Sen. Mike Crapo, said, “We aren’t happy about the closure.”

If the station closes, Vilsack in his letter said its $1.9 million budget for 2015 would be split up. About $844,000 would go to strengthen the sugar-beet industry in Kimberly, $500,000 would be funneled to germplasm research in Aberdeen, and $640,000 would go to the Northwest Watershed Research Center in Boise.

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