Sheep Are Just Too Tasty to Grizzlies

     BOISE (CN) - A federal sheep experiment in Idaho threatens the teetering population of Yellowstone grizzly bears, environmentalists claim in court.
     The U.S. Sheep Experiment Station (USSES), established in 1915, conducts research on sheep reproduction, genetics, growth and development, range management and quality of meat and wool, the defendant U.S. Department of Agriculture says on its Internet page.
     The Cottonwood Environmental Law Center and five other groups sued the Experiment Station, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the USDA and the Agricultural Research Service, in Federal Court.
     The Sheep Experiment Station, 6 miles north of Dubois, Idaho, in Clark County, has about 2,000 domestic sheep on 1,765 square miles of land, including 27,930 Agricultural Research Service (ARS) acres.
     About 16,600 acres in Montana are used for spring and autumn grazing and rangeland. This includes areas in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest in the Centennial Mountains in Montana and Yellowstone National Park.
     Part of the land is in the Primary Conservation Area for grizzly bears, which are listed as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act,.
     The roughly 50,000 grizzly bears in the Lower 48 states in the 1800s have been reduced to 1,400 to 1,700 today, on 2 percent of their historic range. Only 400 to 600 grizzlies remain in the Greater Yellowstone Habitat, according to the complaint.
     "The Primary Conservation Area includes approximately 51 percent of all suitable habitat for the grizzly population in the Greater Yellowstone area and an estimated 84 to 90 percent of the Greater Yellowstone area's population of female grizzlies with cubs," according to the complaint.
     The USDA says the land provides "unparalleled research opportunities" because of the diverse geography and elevation, from 4,800 feet to 10,000 feet above sea level.
     The plaintiffs say the sheep station is too attractive for grizzly bears, which are diverted from their natural predation cycle to take advantage of free meals on sheep.
     The plaintiffs challenge a 2011 Biological Opinion from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that claims Yellowstone grizzly bears are not affected by the sheep station.
     "In preparing the 2011 Biological Opinion for the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service improperly limited the 'action area' under consideration to the land actually being grazed and failed to evaluate the effects of continued private grazing, including displacement, harassment, and harm to grizzly bears, within the context of the environmental baseline," the complaint states.
     The problem is the free mutton lures grizzlies out of their natural patterns, to their death.
     "Grizzly bears have depredated sheep on allotments grazed by the Sheep Station in the past," the complaint states. "The bears immediately switch from natural food to domestic sheep, thereby disrupting their natural movements and increasing the probability of human-bear conflict and hazing by Sheep Station employees."
     The complaint adds: "Grizzly bears that become habituated on feeding on sheep at the Sheep Station and later move to adjacent private livestock allotments are expected to be killed."
     The environmental claim the Sheep Station never prepared an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement, which are required under the National Environmental Policy Act, to assess the impacts of the facility on grizzlies, lynx, wolves, bighorn sheep and other species.
     The contending parties reached an agreement under which the ARS and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would determine if the grizzlies were threatened by the facility.
     Fish and Wildlife issued a biological opinion on Nov. 8, 2011, claiming that "the adverse effects were not likely to jeopardize the grizzly bear." The plaintiffs disagree.
     They ask the court to order the defendants to "promptly complete" a new biological opinion, as required by the Endangered Species Act and the Administrative Procedures Act.
     They are represented by Cottonwood Environmental Law Center staff attorney John Meyer in Bozeman, Mont., and Natalie J. Havlina, in Boise.
     Here are the plaintiffs: Cottonwood Environmental Law Center, Western Watersheds Project, Gallatin Wildlife Association, Native Ecosystems Council and the Yellowstone Buffalo Foundation.