Closing government facilities never comes easy, but budget reductions could prove good news for wildlife along the Montana-Idaho border. A recent decision by the Obama administration to close the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station in the Centennial Mountains helps reduce federal expenditures and should benefit taxpayers, wildlife and hunters. However, opposition is building and it will take sportsmen, conservationists and legislators to ensure that the closure actually occurs.
The decision was announced last month by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who noted that declining funding for this Agricultural Research Service (ARS) station had made it impossible to conduct the research for which the station was created.
This is a case where reducing federal spending can have significant indirect public benefit. It’s a win-win for taxpayers and wildlife and one that Montana’s congressional delegation should support.
Since 1915, the station has conducted some very important research on sheep and sheep grazing. Three breeds of domestic sheep were developed there, and its scientists have provided valuable insight into sheep grazing/range relationships. But during those years there has been a cost to public wildlife.
The station provides excellent habitat for a variety of wildlife, including game animals like elk and mule deer. It is also an important linkage area for wildlife moving between the Yellowstone and Selway-Bitterroot ecosystems. Once historic bighorn range, reestablishing bighorns is presently impossible because of disease threats from domestic sheep. Black bears and grizzly bears exist in the area, but are not tolerated because of potential predation and a grizzly bear was killed on the range as recently as 2012.
While the station has value, budget reductions are forcing changes. Vilsack is proposing to reallocate station funds among three other ARS units and transferring its sheep research to an ARS facility in Nebraska. Seventeen of its 21 full time employees have been offered positions elsewhere; the remaining four being eligible to retire. Although the closure may adversely affect station employees and the economy of Dubois, Vilsack is making the difficult decisions that come with budget cuts and “someone always pays the price.”
In this specific case, at least wildlife, hunters and wildlife enthusiasts stand to benefit. The sheep station sits in some of the finest wildlife habitat in Montana and Idaho. Its ability to support wildlife will surely grow once sheep research is no longer a source of conflict.
Secretary Vilsack did what managers do when they’re given a budget – he lived within his means and looked for areas where cuts could be made. In the case of this sheep station, Vilsack saw an outdated facility that could be eliminated while benefiting the public.
This decision deserves the support of Montana’s congressional delegation.
Skip Kowalski, President
Montana Wildlife Federation