Sheep thrive on the high mountain grass found in the Gravely Mountain Range, located in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. Sheep have been grazing these lands since before it was sanctioned as National Forest. Photo submitted by Sara Helle.

Sheep producers across the region have breathed a big sigh of relief with the recent Federal Court rulings that came out in their favor. Two major lawsuits that directly impact sheep producers, especially in Montana, finally came to an end when the courts ruled on the merits of both cases.

The first major case involved the Gallatin Wildlife Association who sued the U.S. Forest Service. Boiled down to its essence, the Gallatin Wildlife Association wanted to prohibit domestic sheep grazing from occurring on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, located in southwest Montana near Dillon.

When the Forest Service did the Revised Forest Plan for the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest in 2010, it was argued they did not sufficiently study whether domestic sheep pose any threat to big horn sheep in the area.

The plaintiffs believed domestic sheep were infecting big horn sheep with pneumonia, causing death. Basing their entire case on outdated research, the Gallatin Wildlife Association charged ahead with a lawsuit. Three sheep producers who have grazed sheep for generations in the Gravely Mountain Range, which lays in the heart of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, had to step into the lawsuit to protect their interests.

The Federal District Court ordered the Forest Service to do a supplemental analysis to truly determine what effect sheep had on the big horn sheep population and the environment.

“The Forest Service did that analysis and concluded, as it had three to four times previously, that domestic sheep grazing as it is constituted on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest does not pose a threat to either the big horn sheep or the environment,” explained Jim Brown, director of public affairs for the Montana Wool Growers Association (MWGA).

The lawsuit was originally filed in 2015 and managed to wind its way up to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals twice. The Federal Court in Butte, Mont., finally dismissed the case in the spring of 2019.

The sheep industry saw another triumph when the Federal Courts again dismissed a case brought about by the Gallatin Wildlife Association. For this case, they joined forces with the Yellowstone Buffalo Foundation and their target was the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station.

The U.S. Sheep Experiment Station, located in Dubois, Idaho, has been in operation since 1915. They have worked for over a century on developing hardy sheep breeds and have conducted pivotal rangeland research.

The Sheep Station has three grazing allotments in the Centennial Mountains located in southern Beaverhead County on the Idaho border. Since these public lands are utilized by the Agriculture Research Services (ARS) and are classified as laboratories, they have been taken out of the public domain.

The plaintiffs in this case filed a lawsuit in 2012, essentially demanding the Sheep Station perform an environmental analysis to evaluate the impact that domestic sheep grazing had on grizzly bears in the area. They argued domestic sheep in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem were drawing grizzly bears to them and then the bears, presumably were being killed by sheep herders.

As outlandish as the plaintiff’s argument may sound, the Sheep Station complied and performed an environmental analysis, but the plaintiffs felt is wasn’t good enough, so they sued again. The Sheep Station settled by agreeing to do a supplemental analysis. At this point, The Sheep Station also agreed to suspend grazing on their Centennial Mountain allotments.

The supplemental analysis concluded that domestic sheep did not cause any threat to grizzly bears, but the icing on the cake was the plaintiffs suing again.

“First the plaintiffs sued saying there had to be an environmental analysis, then they sued saying the environmental analysis wasn’t sufficient, then they sued saying the supplemental environmental analysis wasn’t enough. It was just an abuse of the federal court system,” Brown stated.

After years of drawn out litigation, courts ruled in favor of the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station in late May of this year, coming to the conclusion that the original environmental analysis was accurate and domestic sheep pose no threat to grizzly bear populations. The Sheep Station can now utilize its grazing allotments again and return to its mission of doing research.

“The big takeaway from these two cases is they reverse the troubling trend were federal courts have been making management decisions about public lands that were averse to the domestic sheep industry,” said Brown.

It is more than U.S. sheep producers that win with these rulings. All other agriculturalists that graze on public lands saw a big win for multiple use management as well. Moreover, these rulings are final, so the hope is these court decisions will mitigate the threat of future unnecessary and cumbersome environmental litigation. Sheep can now graze contently on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest and Centennial Mountain Range.