MISSOULA, Mont. (CN) – Grizzly bears and bighorn sheep are threatened by federal permission for 8,000 domestic sheep to graze in prime habitat in Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest in Montana, environmentalists claim in court.
The Gallatin Wildlife Association sued the U.S. Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service in Federal Court, to protect bighorn sheep habitat “in the heart of the Gravelly Mountains.”
The Gravelly Mountains top out at 10,542 feet in the Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest, near the Idaho border. It is renowned for its fishing and caves. The National Forest is part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, millions of acres that spread across northern Wyoming, Western Montana and eastern Idaho, continuing to the Yukon.
It is one of the last remaining natural strongholds for the original species of plants and animals that existed before Europeans arrived in North America, according to the complaint.
“The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem contains the greatest concentration of large mammals in the lower 48 states, and is one of the few temperate ecosystems where ecological processes such as predator-prey interactions are still in place,” the complaint states. “Elk, bison, bighorn sheep, lynx, wolves, wolverines and grizzly bears are all found in this ecosystem.”
Bighorn sheep and grizzly bears are both protected by federal law. But the defendants’ Revised Forest Plan and Operating Instructions for Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest allow nearly 8,000 domestic sheep to graze in “historic bighorn habitat” where only 35 bighorns live today.
“Bighorn sheep are precluded from naturally recolonizing the area or being reintroduced because of the domestic sheep,” the environmentalists say.
Montana’s Fish and Wildlife Service would like to see 135 bighorns in the area at issue, and its Montana Bighorn Sheep Conservation Strategy “states that domestic sheep conflicts are the major issue affecting this herd of bighorns,” according to the complaint.
The group also challenges the defendants’ Endangered Species Act analysis for their Forest Plan.
“What they have not done is analyze the effects of domestic sheep grazing in bighorn habitat and on grizzly bears,” Glenn Hockett, president of the Gallatin Wildlife Association, told Courthouse News. “The information is outdated.
“We’ve been asking them for years to do a National Environmental Policy Act analysis, but they keep putting it off.
“The presence of domestic sheep make habitat unsuitable for bighorn. So, since the decision to allow grazing in this area is discretionary, they are really doing the bighorn and grizzly a true disservice.”
Bighorn can be devastated by diseases spread by domestic sheep. “The revised forest plan doesn’t address the issue of co-mingling occurring between domestic and bighorn sheep that, according to studies, presents the potential for the spread of disease such as pneumonia and other respiratory diseases,” the complaint states. “The domestic grazing also displaces bighorn sheep from 45,000 acres of their historic habitat. The Forest Service did not use all currently available scientific data in its viability analysis for bighorn sheep.”
Hockett said grizzly bears are threatened by the use of lime to break down animal carcasses.
“I’m not an expert, but it they could be using it to deter bears from eating the sheep carcasses,” Hockett said. “That’s my impression, but it hasn’t been a detractor. In any case, they eat them and the lime itself harms the grizzly.”
John Meyer, executive director for the Cottonwood Environmental Law Center, said the Forest Service doesn’t seem too concerned about native species.
“The Endangered Species Act requires the Forest Service to make threatened and endangered species its highest priority,” he told Courthouse News. “If grizzly bears were a high priority for the Forest Service, the agency would not allow 8,000 domestic sheep to graze in the heart of one of the bruins’ most important corridors. The Forest Service is setting grizzly bears up for failure.”
Hockett said the Forest Service is erroneously trying to balance economic interests and environmental concerns by managing many small pockets of bighorn sheep, and calling them a “viable population.”
“The Forest Service’s policy is to maintain separation because of the risk of disease,” he said. “It’s gets complicated, but if there are domestic sheep in the area, they have a policy not to allow the bighorn into the area occupied by them. They don’t want the sheep to take the disease back, but really they are adding to the threat.”
Hockett said the small pockets of bighorn are not enough to sustain a healthy population and that consolidating them into larger herds is the only chance they have to rebound.
“They [the Forest Service] claim they are providing for viable populations across the forest, but you don’t have the connectivity required to sustain a population,” he said.
Leona Roderick, public affairs officer for the Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest, said she could not comment on the lawsuit.
“We just got it today and we still have to review it and see what it entails,” she said.
Gallatin Wildlife asked the court to order a revised forest plan, to declare that the annual operating instructions and the forest plan’s biological opinion violate federal law, and to enjoin sheep grazing on the federal land at issue, and bar use of lime to treat sheep carcasses.
The plaintiffs seek costs, expenses, expert witness fees and reasonable attorney fees under the Equal Access to Justice Act and the Endangered Species Act.
Gallatin Wildlife is represented by John Meyer with the Cottonwood Environmental Law Center, in Bozeman.
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