GREAT FALLS, Mont. (CN) — Bighorn sheep advocates were cautiously optimistic when a federal judge declined to rule on whether domestic sheep can continue to graze on public land until the U.S. Forest Service prepares supplemental analysis on how grazing affects bighorns and their habitat.
The Gallatin Wildlife Association and others sued the U.S. Forest Service in June 2015. The environmental groups claim the Forest Service fails to protect bighorn sheep in the Gravelly Mountains of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, where 8,000 domestic sheep graze in historic bighorn sheep habitat, south of Butte in southwest Montana.
“Bighorn sheep are precluded from using the Gravelly Mountains because of the domestic sheep, which transmit deadly respiratory diseases to the bighorns,” the groups said in their first amended complaint in September. Also suing were the Western Watersheds Project, WildEarth Guardians and the Yellowstone Buffalo Foundation.
Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks reintroduced 69 bighorn sheep to the Greenhorn Mountains in 2004. It wanted the herd to grow to 125, but more than half have died — only 31 remain, due to mortality allegedly caused, in part, by contact with domestic sheep.
The environmentalists say the Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Forest Management Act and the Administrative Procedures Act by authorizing grazing in its Revised Forest Plan, Allotment Management Plans and Annual Operating Instructions.
Bighorn sheep were first reintroduced to the Greenhorn Mountains in September 2001. The Greenhorn Mountains are part of the Gravelly Mountain landscape. In 2002, the Forest Service authorized grazing permits for domestic sheep in the Gravelly Mountains. Also that year, the Forest Service, Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks and the Bureau of Land Management agreed to a Memorandum of Understanding with permit holders, addressing their concerns about the effects reintroduction of bighorn sheep would have on grazing of domestic sheep.
The memo calls the concerns unwarranted, and said permit holders cab contact Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks by satellite phone if a bighorn sheep comes within half a mile of a domestic sheep or domestic allotment, allowing them to obtain a kill permit to prevent contact between the animals.
The memo was renewed in 2008.
“We’ve been asking the Forest Service for 10 years to analyze the impact of sheep grazing and they basically said, ‘No, we won’t,'” John Meyer, of the Cottonwood Environmental Law Center, told Courthouse News on Wednesday.
“We have emails dating back to 2002 asking them to analyze the impacts, and they kept saying ‘maybe next year, maybe next year,’ so we had no other option than to file a lawsuit.”
The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment in March and April this year.
On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Brian Morris ruled that the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Forest failed to disclose and analyze the Memorandum of Understanding. He said the Forest Service must revisit management plans for the individual domestic sheep allotments in the Gravellys because they contain no analysis of threats to bighorn.
He declined, however, to rule on whether domestic sheep grazing on public lands could continue until the Forest Service completes its due diligence.
“The court deems it appropriate at this stage to defer a decision on whether to enjoin domestic sheep grazing until the USFS has resolved the deficiencies in its analysis,” Morris wrote in a 38-page order.
“The USFS will need to consider the appropriateness and scope of future domestic grazing based upon a full and open environmental review process.”
Morris said the discussion must include the 2002 and 2008 Memorandum of Understanding and whether “new information has emerged that requires the environmental review for the AMPs [Allotment Management Plans] to be updated.”
Morris put the problem of how to deal with problems caused by domestic and bighorn sheep grazing on the same landscape squarely in the Forest Service’s lap.
“The USFS must decide at the end of this process how to address the conflict between domestic sheep grazing and the reintroduction of bighorn sheep in the Gravelly Landscape,” the judge wrote.
Forest Service attorney James Brown, in Helena, said Judge Morris did not believe that the level of disclosure met the “hard look” required by the National Environmental Policy Act.
Brown said added that sheep ranchers would lose big if they were not allowed to graze on public lands.
“They don’t know what they would do,” Brown said. “There are no other alternatives. They can’t graze the sheep on their own private land alone. It’s really a revolving situation, where they graze them on one property in the summer and then move them to another area in the winter. It takes a while for the land to recuperate. This is a really big deal for producers.”
But bighorn advocates celebrated, believing they’re a step closer to protecting Montana’s native bighorns.
“Bighorn sheep belong in the Greenhorns,” Greg Dyson of WildEarth Guardians said in a statement. “Before they were eliminated in the 1900s they had been there for millennia. As long as domestic sheep are allowed to graze and trail through this area, bighorn sheep will not persist there.”
Attorney Meyer said there is room for collaboration.”If we can partner with domestic sheepherders we can help them, and restore an entire ecosystem, which includes grizzlies, wolves, foxes and coyotes,” he said. “By removing the sheep we can restore the ecosystem and allow the public to access public land. We want to work with domestic sheepherders.”
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