Lawsuit: Bighorn sheep threatened by domestic sheep grazing

FILE - In this Jan. 8, 2008 file photo, Bighorn sheep graze near the Big Pines Recreation Area in the Yakima River Canyon, Wash. Environmental groups have filed a lawsuit contending the U.S. Forest Service is illegally jeopardizing bighorn sheep by allowing University of Idaho domestic sheep on two eastern Idaho grazing allotments as part of agricultural research activities. Western Watersheds Project and WildEarth Guardians in the lawsuit filed Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017, contend the grazing via permits issued to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Sheep Experiment Station risks transmitting diseases to bighorn sheep. (Gordon King/Yakima Herald-Republic via AP, File)

BOISE, Idaho — The U.S. Forest Service is illegally jeopardizing a small herd of bighorn sheep with deadly diseases by allowing thousands of domestic sheep to graze in eastern Idaho as part of agricultural research activities, environmental groups have said in a lawsuit.

Western Watersheds Project and WildEarth Guardians in the lawsuit filed Tuesday contend the grazing of sheep owned by the University of Idaho via permits issued to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Sheep Experiment Station risks transmitting diseases to bighorn sheep.

"It's unjustifiable for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of Idaho to expose wild bighorn to deadly pathogens for the sake of a few months of free forage on the national forest," Scott Lake, Idaho director for Western Watersheds Project, said in a statement. "The value of native wildlife far exceeds whatever the state and federal government will get out of taking this chance."

The lawsuit challenges the Forest Service's authorization of the grazing allotments in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest, an area also used by a herd of about 36 South Beaverhead Rocky Mountain bighorns.

Environmentalists say disease has prevented the herd from growing and that allowing the domesticated sheep to graze there increases health risks for bighorns because they could be sickened through contact with the domesticated sheep.

The groups contend the federal agency is violating environmental laws by allowing the grazing this fall and winter before completing an environmental analysis. The groups in the lawsuit noted that courts have previously recognized the high risk of disease transmission from domestic to wild sheep.

The groups are asking the court to prevent any sheep from being released into the area until after the environmental analysis is finished. Currently, domestic sheep can start grazing on Nov. 6.

U.S. Forest Service officials did not return a phone message seeking comment on Wednesday. University of Idaho officials had no immediate comment on the lawsuit, said spokesman Brad Gary.

The domesticated sheep have grazed in the area cited by environmentalists for years. The sheep station operates on about 75 square miles (195 square kilometers) in Idaho. It also grazes sheep on federal public land in Idaho and Montana.

That public land includes the Snakey Canyon and Kelley Canyon grazing allotments on the southern end of the Beaverhead Mountains west of Dubois, Idaho, where 2,200 sheep are permitted to graze.

The sheep station has operated for about a century and in recent years has faced proposed shutdowns due to a declining federal budget. It has been kept open mainly through the efforts of U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, who has said the research is critically important to the sheep industry and eastern Idaho's economy.

Environmentalists have filed previous lawsuits over the grazing areas in the region that are in a key east-west wildlife corridor in the Centennial Mountains between Yellowstone National Park and rugged central Idaho lands.

A 392-pound (178-kilogram) male grizzly bear being tracked by researchers disappeared in September 2012 from sheep station property. Its collar was later found hidden under a rock in a creek. The body of the bear was never found.

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