Fight over sheep continues in Idaho federal court
BOISE, Idaho (AP) — With domestic sheep due to be released on rangeland near Idaho’s Hell’s Canyon next month, the U.S. Forest Service and environmentalists are back in federal court this week to argue over whether the grazing plan is legal.
Wednesday’s hearing before U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill in Boise is the latest theater in the fight over how best to protect wild bighorn sheep from deadly lung disease that scientists say is transmitted by their domestic cousins. Ranchers view grazing closures as a threat to their livelihood.
Last year, the Payette National Forest closed 54,000 acres to grazing, to separate the species.
Earlier this year, however, Regional Forester Harv Forsgren in Ogden, Utah, delayed shuttering another 7,700 acres in 2012, citing a congressional edict pushed through in December by U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, on behalf of sheep ranchers to halt closures for at least a year.
Craig Gehrke, the Wilderness Society’s Idaho director, contends Forsgren ignored the Payette National Forest’s own recommendations to continue closures and instead caved in to Simpson, the powerful leader of a House budget panel that oversees the Forest Service’s annual spending.
“Somebody in the regional office or Washington, D.C., threw the Payette National Forest under the bus because they didn’t want to anger the Appropriations subcommittee chairman,” Gehrke said Monday.
Winmill is expected to rule soon on environmentalists’ demands to continue closures, with sheep due to be turned out next month.
Under a 2010 Payette National Forest plan, grazing allotments were to be reduced 70 percent by 2013, or some 70,000 acres, near Hell’s Canyon. Once complete, it would protect some 94 percent of bighorn habitat in the forest.
Ranchers including the Soulen Livestock Co., owned by relatives of Lt. Gov. Brad Little whose grazing allotments were set to be impacted in 2012, fear these burgeoning restrictions will cripple their industry.
Last December, Simpson, on behalf of the Idaho Wool Growers’ Association, inserted a provision, or “rider,” into the Forest Service’s 2012 budget forbidding the agency from spending money on grazing reductions beyond those already in place on July 1, 2011.
Via a Freedom of Information Act request, however, Gehrke uncovered documents showing how Payette National Forest leaders argued the closures should continue as planned, despite Simpson’s measure.
In a memo dated Jan. 6, Payette National Forest Supervisor Keith Lannom described to Forsgren how his employees had begun implementing the grazing restrictions long before Simpson’s deadline.
“Permittees were notified of the decision to reduce grazing prior to July 1, 2011. … All of the permit modifications were issued prior to July 1, 2011,” Lannom wrote. “The Forest recommends continued implementation.”
Lannom, based in McCall, and Forsgren declined through an agency spokeswoman to comment, citing the pending litigation.
In court documents, however, Forest Service lawyers argue that the guiding principle in Simpson’s rider was the congressman’s intent to put expansion of the grazing closures for ranchers like the Soulens temporarily on ice.
“Since Congress’s intent was to freeze current management for one year, the Forest Service is precluded from imposing management restrictions this year that were not imposed during the 2011 grazing season,” Forest Service lawyers wrote on May 19.
On Monday, Simpson said his intervention sought to give both sides a “time-out” to craft a compromise that didn’t result in one side, the ranchers, being forced from allotments where they had run sheep for generations.
“I don’t believe that putting ranchers out of businesses is an acceptable solution,” Simpson told The Associated Press in a statement.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.
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