Federal officials have released a plan to close about 30 square miles of grazing allotments to domestic sheep and goats in west-central Idaho to protect bighorn sheep from diseases.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management's release of the final supplemental environmental impact statement closing three allotments starts a protest period that runs through June 19.
Two of the allotments are east of Riggins near the Salmon River and one is to the south along the Little Salmon River. The BLM opted not to close a fourth smaller allotment farther south.
None of the allotments currently have domestic sheep. One, the Partridge Creek allotment on the south side of the Salmon River, closed in 2009 because of a court order following a lawsuit. The BLM in 2011 decided to temporarily close the nearby Marshall Mountain allotment.
"Closing those two allotments certainly is important and recognizes the need for separation between the species," said Laurie Rule, an attorney with Advocates for the West who represented environmental groups in the lawsuit leading to the closing of Partridge Creek allotment.
For sheep producers, it was another in a string of setbacks.
"It's not surprising, we knew it was coming," said Stan Boyd, executive director of the Idaho Wool Growers Association. He said the sheep producer who used the Partridge Creek allotment has gone out of business and the producer using the Marshall Mountain allotment has scaled back.
"There's no firm science that says 100 percent that domestic sheep pass disease on the open range, or that they're the only species that can pass the disease," he said.
The BLM document released earlier this month replaces a 2008 plan that drew protests and emerged at a time when the connection between domestic sheep transmitting diseases to bighorns was less accepted. That's shifted in the years since, and BLM officials said the new plan is partly based on a better understanding of the risks to bighorns from lethal diseases transmitted by domestic sheep.
Notably, the release follows a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in March involving the U.S. Forest Service closing sheep grazing allotments in the same region as the BLM allotments. The federal appeals court ruling specifically recognized a connection between bighorn sheep die-offs and diseases transmitted by domestic sheep.
"Certainly we were following that litigation involving the Forest Service," said Scott Pavey, planning and environmental coordinator for the BLM's Coeur d'Alene District and project lead for the recently released plan. The appeals court ruling "really lends support to the decision we're proposing as well."
Pavey said that if no protests are filed against the BLM's final supplemental environmental impact statement, the agency by this fall would likely put out a document called a record of decision officially closing the three allotments to sheep and goats. Cattle and horse would still be allowed, he said.