- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 2, 2016

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - A ruling on Wednesday by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the reduction of domestic sheep grazing in Payette National Forest in Idaho by about 70 percent to protect bighorn sheep from diseases.

The three-judge panel said the U.S. Forest Service had met the requirements of federal law in deciding to reduce sheep grazing in the area.

“Today’s ruling shows that taking precautionary measures to protect native wildlife is a reasonable approach to managing our public lands,” said Ken Cole, Idaho director of Western Watersheds Project, one of three environmental groups that intervened in the lawsuit on the side of the Forest Service.

The Idaho Wool Growers Association, American Sheep Industry Association and other groups joined several Idaho sheep ranchers in filing the lawsuit in 2012.

The move came two years after the Forest Service announced its bighorn sheep protection plan that limited domestic sheep grazing.

In 2014, a federal judge for the District of Idaho ruled against the domestic sheep growers. The appeals court upheld that decision.

Barry Duelke, president of the Idaho Wool Growers Association, said he hadn’t seen the latest ruling and couldn’t comment.

The lawsuit contended the Forest Service didn’t follow proper legal procedures before concluding bighorns in Payette National Forest face significant risk of contracting fatal diseases from domestic sheep.

The lawsuit said the agency didn’t consult the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research service about the transmission of disease.

But the panel of judges ruled that any error the Forest Service might have made by not consulting the service was harmless because the specific details of disease transmission were not the basis for the Forest Service decision.

Brian Harris, public affairs officer for Payette National Forest, said the agency couldn’t comment on the ruling.

Experts say about 10,000 bighorns once roamed in Hells Canyon and the surrounding mountains before being eliminated in the 1940s.

Scientists generally attribute the decline of bighorns in North America to habitat loss, over-hunting, competition for food, and disease transmission from domestic sheep.

Nearly 500 bighorn sheep, a prized big game trophy among hunters, were transplanted into Hells Canyon from 1971 to 2004.

Harris said current estimates put the bighorn population in the area at about 1,500. He said about 700 of those are in the Main Salmon South Fork herd in the Salmon River Mountains, and another 800 are in the Hells Canyon herd.

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