Sheep station

Sheep graze at the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station in Dubois.

DUBOIS — The U.S Justice Department has filed its response to a lawsuit challenging domestic sheep grazing at the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station in Dubois north of Idaho Falls.

The suit in U.S. District Court, filed by the environmental groups the Western Watersheds Project and Wildearth Guardians in February, seeks to block the reauthorization of sheep grazing there, saying it will harm bighorn sheep, grizzly bears, sage grouse and other wildlife species in the Centennial Mountains along the Idaho-Montana border.

“The Sheep Station is over 100 years old and has outlived its purpose,” Scott Lake, Idaho Director for Western Watersheds Project, said in a news release when the suit was filed. “Rather than supporting useful research, the true purpose of this seems to be a political handout for the sheep industry at the expense of the American public, who clearly prefer wildlife over domestic livestock on public lands.”

The Justice Department’s response, which was filed earlier this month, denies most of the allegations in the suit and asks the court to dismiss the lawsuit and award the defendant’s court costs.

The station, which was founded in 1915, is run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and grazes several thousand sheep owned by the University of Idaho. Western Watersheds and other environmental groups have sued the station a couple of times in the past, most recently in 2017.

That lawsuit was settled in summer 2018 when the federal government agreed to prohibit grazing until a study was completed assessing the risk of domestic sheep transmitting diseases to bighorns. However, the Department of Agriculture said last fall that it intended to resume grazing this year.

The sheep station in Clark County had nine full-time employees in February, down from 36 at its peak and 21 as recently as 2014. However, it still represents a significant chunk of jobs in a county of fewer than 1,000 residents. As well as legal challenges, it has been living under the threat of defunding, with budget proposals from both presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump recommending closing the station over the past few years. U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, a Republican who represents eastern Idaho, has been one of the major advocates for keeping it open.

Reporter Nathan Brown can be reached at 208-542-6757. Follow him on Twitter: @NateBrownNews.