Why the Secretary of Agriculture Is Right to Try to Close Idaho's Sheep Experiment Station

Richard Walker and Lance Craighead, Analyzing Wildlife Movement Corridors in Montana Using GIS.gif

Conservation biology has long taught us that if we want to preserve the few truly wild places left in North America we must, to the greatest extent possible, connect them.  Providing animals with easily accessible and relatively safe corridors and linkages between wild places allows them to travel freely, reestablish ancient migration patterns, replenish smaller populations with new blood, and adapt to new conditions, such as climate change.

So it was heartening to see the government take a major step to preserve one such linkage when Secretary Vilsack announced that the U.S. Department of Agriculture would close its “Sheep Experiment Station,” which grazes thousands of sheep a year on allotments in the Centennial Mountains, a narrow range of rugged mountains that connect the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem with wild and remote portions of central Idaho.  (You can see the mountains in the narrow band of green and red, in this map).  

To put it mildly, sheep and wildlife corridors don’t mix.  Corridors are, by their nature, narrow, making it more likely that migrating animals will encounter any livestock grazed on them.  And sheep, relatively defenseless animals (even compared to cows), are particular temptations for predators such as grizzly bears and wolves.  Past conflicts with grizzly bears in these allotments are well-documented and entire wolf packs have been killed in the Centennials at the Sheep Station's behest. Domestic sheep are also a potent disease vector, able to spread deadly pneumonia to native bighorn sheep, which are present in the area, from miles away.

That’s why conservation groups have long called for the Sheep Station, which maintains a herd of over 3,000 sheep, to be closed.  Sending thousands of sheep up into this vital linkage between Idaho and Yellowstone every year simply made no sense, particularly at taxpayer’s expense.  As Secretary Vilsack pointed out when he announced the closure of the sheep station, not only does the station no longer perform important research, its continued operations cost the taxpayers close to $2 million dollars a year.  And I was heartened to see that the USDA will find jobs for most of the Sheep Station’s employees at other facilities.

Predictably, though, the sheep industry -- long used to government largess and getting its way in Washington -- is pushing back furiously on the closure announcement.  In fact, just today a subcommittee in the U.S. House has moved to block the proposed closure. That’s why Secretary Vilsak’s decision to close the Sheep Station shows real leadership: it’s always tough to close a federal facility, particularly when any agency does so against the wishes of one of its natural constituencies.  So, please, take a moment and send Secretary Vilsak an email or a short note and thank him for his decision. Wolves, grizzly bears, and bighorn sheep will be safer because of it:

You can write the Secretary here:

Tom Vilsack, Secretary

U.S. Department of Agriculture

1400 Independence Ave. SW

Washington, DC 20250