Monday, July 7, 2014

Taxpayers Win in Sheep Station Closure

By Nick Gevock

How often do we get the chance to save taxpayer dollars and benefit taxpayers at the same time? When it comes to wildlife management, turns out at least sometimes that’s possible.

As hunter-conservationists, we had one of those instances this week. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced late last month to Congress that he was closing the Agricultural Research Service’s Sheep Experiment Station in the Centennial Mountains. Vilsack said years of declining or flat budgets had made it impossible for the station, which had been there since 1915, to do the research it was intended to do.

The station’s loss of 21 federal jobs was decried by Idaho politicians, who vowed to fight the closure. But they failed to mention that 17 of those employees would be reassigned to jobs in other places. The other four would retire. The sheep station was costing the federal treasury $1.5 million per year.

But behind that, the closure speaks to the need for wildlife conservationists to look at what the federal government is spending money on. The research station, which straddles the Montana-Idaho border in the Centennial Mountains west of Yellowstone National Park, sits in some of the best wildlife habitat in the country. The area is home to numerous wildlife species, including elk, mule deer, antelope, and grizzly and black bears. Putting domestic sheep in such a wildlife rich area is rife for problems.

And it has been. Several grizzly and black bears have had to be killed on the station because of conflicts with the domestic sheep grazed there. In addition, the area is prime habitat for native bighorn sheep, but because of the presence of the domestic sheep there are no bighorns there – nor is any consideration of transplanting this native wildlife species to these public lands. And that’s unfortunate, because bighorns are struggling, and the Centennials are excellent wild sheep habitat.

That is not to say that there isn’t room for domestic sheep in Montana. Agriculture is an important part of Montana’s economy, and the woolgrowers are part of that industry. But so, too, is wildlife, hunting and outdoor recreation, which pumps $5.8 billion into our state. Everybody in Montana benefits from wildlife. And that’s dependent on healthy habitat that supports the wildlife – both game and non-game species – that thrive in this incredible state.

The fact that taxpayers were subsidizing a research station that wasn’t really conducting meaningful research and yet was a major impediment to native wildlife was troubling. The fact that politicians would defend it in a time of federal budget deficits is baffling.

It’s time that wildlife conservationists stand up and speak out for federal policies that benefit wildlife. In this case, they could do it by proposing that government simply not do something. In this era of federal budget deficits and anti-government rhetoric, that’s a pretty easy argument to make. 

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