No Protection, Yet, for Montana Bighorns

     GREAT FALLS, Mont. (CN) – A federal judge refused to issue an injunction to stop the U.S. Forest Service from allowing domestic sheep to graze near habitat for protected bighorn sheep in Montana.
     U.S. District Judge Brian Morris denied Gallatin Wildlife Association’s request for a preliminary injunction to protect bighorns in the Cottonwood and Fossil-Hellroaring allotments in the southwestern Gravelly Mountains, in Montana’s Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest.
     The forest is in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, millions of acres that spread from northern Wyoming, Western Montana and eastern Idaho north to Canada and the Yukon.
     Bighorn are susceptible to diseases carried by domestic sheep. The Forest Service manages seven grazing allotments in the Gravelly Mountains.
     Bighorns grizzly bears are threatened by domestic sheep grazing there, according to Gallatin, which claims the Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act by issuing the grazing permits.
     The permits allow domestic sheep to graze on 8,000 acres of public land in the national forest.
     “The presence of domestic sheep make habitat unsuitable for bighorn,” Gallatin president Glenn Hockett told Courthouse News, after his group sought the injunction in June.
     “The revised forest plan doesn’t address the issue of commingling 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.”
     Gallatin claimed that without an injunction bighorn sheep and grizzly bears would “suffer irreparable harm before a decision on the merits of the case can be reached” and that the allotments could be absorbed into the remaining five allotments without harm to the permit holders.
     But Judge Morris found that domestic sheep have been grazing in the Gravelly area since the 1860s, and that Montana’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks Service introduced bighorn sheep there only 12 years ago.
     “Gallatin contends that enjoining grazing this year will remedy the ongoing harm to bighorn sheep and grizzly bears,” Morris wrote in said in the July 24 memorandum and order.
     “This position suggests that the harm caused during the past 150 years of grazing would not be irreparable. Gallatin fails to explain how this historical grazing apparently has not caused irreparable harm, yet allowing grazing to occur during the 2015 grazing season would cause irreparable harm.”
     Gallatin also claimed that the presence of domestic sheep herds prevents bighorn herds from growing, but Morris said it did not provide any evidence in support of that.
     “Gallatin fails to explain why the bighorn sheep here will not begin to grow if the domestic grazing is stopped next year instead of this year,” Morris wrote. “No evidence has been provided to suggest that the bighorn sheep will suffer irreparable harm in the absence of a preliminary injunction.”
     Morris also addressed Gallatin’s claim that lime, used to hasten decomposition of sheep carcasses and to deter grizzly bears from eating them, causes the bears physical harm. Gallatin said the sheep, combined with Turkish guard dogs called Kangals, will displace grizzlies and prevent them from access to a wildlife corridor linking Montana and Idaho.
     The judge reiterated that considering the long history of grazing in the area, the plaintiff has not shown how preventing the grazing this year would prevent irreparable harm, and that the permit holders quit using lime on sheep carcasses years ago.
     “Federal defendants point out that lime has not been used for a number of years,” Morris wrote. “Defendants contend that removing the carcass proves easier than liming the carcass, so ranchers have removed the carcasses in recent years.”
     In conclusion, Morris acknowledged the difficulty of balancing interests.
     “The issues presented by Gallatin likely will remain beyond the 2015 grazing season as the federal land managers seek the proper balance,” he wrote. “The court will have a chance to address the merits of Gallatin’s claims without the impending deadlines or a preliminary injunction looming. Gallatin has failed at this juncture to persuade the court that it should be entitled to a preliminary injunction to halt the 2015 grazing season.”
     Gallatin’s president Hockett said the fight would continue.
     “We are disappointed we didn’t get the preliminary injunction,” he told Courthouse News Tuesday. “There is still a fundamental conflict with domestic sheep grazing there, but the case will proceed.”
     In response to Morris’ comments on the history of domestic sheep grazing, Hockett said that history is one reason the bighorn are on the brink of extirpation.
     “There were bighorn sheep and grizzlies before the 1860s,” he said. “Their populations slowly began reaching lows. They started dying off some time before the 1920s. That’s almost a century they have been being extirpated from these areas.”
     He said that if something does not change, the bighorn sheep “are done.” He called the bighorns “the walking dead.”
     A Forest Service spokesperson could not be reached after hours Tuesday.

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