BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A federally-run sheep experiment station in eastern Idaho long targeted by environmental groups will resume grazing sheep in the Centennial Mountains of Idaho and Montana next year.
The U.S. Sheep Experiment Station will open on 25 square miles (65 square kilometers) of sheep station land and 5 square miles (13 square kilometers) of U.S. Forest Service land, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said.
Grazing was suspended in 2013 following lawsuits by environmental groups contending the areas contain key wildlife habitat that's a corridor for grizzly bears between Yellowstone National Park and central Idaho. Conservation groups contend grizzly bears have been killed because of sheep station activities.
"We've seen so much grizzly bear recovery in the Centennials," Tom France, regional executive director of the National Wildlife Federation, said Thursday. "That area has really evolved into some of the premier grizzly bear and wildlife habitat in the Yellowstone ecosystem. That is an issue the sheep station has ignored."
He said multiple environmental groups are considering lawsuits to stop the grazing.
The Agriculture Department completed an environmental analysis last summer as required by previous lawsuits approving the grazing. The department then sent letters to groups that took part in the public environmental analysis process, informing them of its decision.
The agency also released a supplemental report on another Forest Service allotment in Idaho where sheep grazing remains on hold following a separate environmental lawsuit involving disease transmission from domestic sheep to bighorn sheep. The Agriculture Department has approved grazing on the allotment but said it will not graze sheep in the area, called the Snakey-Kelly allotments, until the Forest Service completes an environmental analysis.
That analysis is part of a settlement agreement the Forest Service made with Western Watersheds Project and WildEarth Guardians to prohibit domestic sheep owned by the University of Idaho from grazing via permits issued to the Sheep Experiment Station.
The lawsuit filed in October 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. A federal judge in November issued a temporary injunction preventing domestic sheep from being released into the area last fall and winter.
The Sheep Experiment Station, based in Dubois, Idaho, has not only been targeted by environmental groups but has also been on the federal budget chopping block several times in recent years.
Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho, who represents the area, played a crucial role in restoring funding each time.