Updated: March 26, 2014 at 6:00 pm
BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A federal judge has ruled that a U.S. Forest Service plan to reduce domestic sheep grazing on the Payette National Forest by about 70 percent to protect bighorn sheep from diseases will remain in place.
Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge A. Wallace Tashima, sitting by designation for the District of Idaho, made the ruling Tuesday.
"This really helps solidify that the Forest Service has done a first-rate analysis of the disease transmission between bighorn and domestic sheep," said Craig Gehrke of The Wilderness Society, which intervened in the case along with several other conservation groups.
Sheep ranchers in Idaho and other states in 2012 sued the Forest Service over the bighorn sheep protection plan announced in 2010 that reduced the number of sheep grazing allotments on the Payette National Forest.
The Idaho Wool Growers Association, American Sheep Industry Association and other groups as well as several Idaho sheep ranchers contended the Forest Service didn't adequately consider the environmental consequences of the plan as required by the National Environmental Protection Act.
They argued the federal agency failed to consider whether disease is transmitted between bighorn and domestic sheep, the effect reintroduced wolves have had on bighorns and if there are ways to increase bighorn sheep immunity to domestic diseases.
The sheep ranchers also said the plan is misguided and that the Forest Service wrongly used conclusions from a panel of experts on bighorn disease.
But Tashima in the 22-page decision rejected those arguments and said the agency did meet requirements in federal law in creating the plan.
"The decision is rather shortsighted," said Harry Soulen, president of the Idaho Wool Growers Association and owner of Soulen Livestock Company, based in Weiser. "A number of us have lost our allotments or been forced out of the sheep business."
He said he doesn't believe domestic sheep are the causes of die-offs among bighorn sheep herds that contract pneumonia.
"To say that domestic sheep are causing the problem, that's running loose with your judgment of what you say science is," he said.
Soulen said that before the 2010 plan he kept about 10,000 mature sheep on grazing allotments on the Payette National Forest during the summer. He said that'll go down to about 4,000 this summer, plus about 2,500 sheep on private land in the area he's leasing.
He said it's unclear if sheep ranchers will appeal Tashima's ruling.
"We've got to study this before we make that decision one way or another," he said.
The Payette National Forest in western Idaho includes river canyons ideal for bighorns, but they've been in decline in the region for two decades. Across the state, bighorn numbers have dwindled by half since 1990, to about 3,500.
Soulen said there are about 250,000 domestic sheep in the state, down from about 2 million in the 1940s.
He said the Payette National Forest is ideal for domestic sheep because they can start grazing in early July at about 5,000 feet and move up to about 8,000 feet to fresh pastures as the summer advances.
"It's wonderful summer range," he said. "High altitude, good green feed late into the year, late September. As feed in the lower elevations dries out, you keep working your way up to higher elevation where the good green feed is."
Officials with the Payette National Forest didn't return a call from The Associated Press on Wednesday.