The idea of it -- sheep grazing high in the mountains of the rugged West, lambs tagging along behind their mothers, shepherds on horseback and dogs keeping guard -- is the scenic stuff of Hollywood movies. The reality of it is that domestic sheep grazing on public lands depends largely on government subsidies on public lands grazing allotments, relies on immigrant labor and unfair practices, and entails the deaths of native wildlife including bighorn sheep, grizzly bears and wolves. And while the sheep themselves may be raised in the mountains, the domestic sheep grazing industry is protected by politicians in Washington, D.C. with huge subsidies from the American taxpayer.
You wouldn't know it from the outcry in Idaho this week when word spread that the U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to close the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station, an outdated research relic that operates at a financial loss and legal liability. The Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, announced his plans to close the station and reprogram its funding to other agencies, but the livestock industry immediately pushed back, attempting to question well-documented scientific evidence of disease transmission between bighorn and domestic sheep.
Sadly, to continue grazing in these mountains puts species like endangered grizzly bears, wolves, bighorn sheep, and sage-grouse at risk through direct extermination efforts, disease transmission, and degraded habitat. Conservation groups, including Western Watersheds Project, have repeatedly drawn attention to misguided government grazing at the Sheep Experiment Station by placing public pressure on the agencies through public comment and legal advocacy. All those on the side of native wildlife and healthy ecosystems welcomed the news of the closure.
This isn't the only closure that the livestock industry is opposing, and the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service's proactive response to the risk of disease transmission between bighorn and domestic sheep is also receiving political interference from the D.C. politicians beholden to the industry. Because domestic sheep can spread deadly bacteria to the bighorn and decimate entire herds, the Forest Service is looking to phase out grazing in places where potential contact occurs. Congressmen, led by Wyoming Senator John Barasso, urged the land management agencies to rely on the state game management agencies to determine where the threat to bighorn occur. It is a Sagebrush Rebellion against the science that supports large buffers between the two species.
The native wildlife aren't the only ones being abused by this system, and the sheep industry is fraught with the abuse of migrant guest workers who come to America on H2-A visas and spend the summers in isolation under harsh conditions, working 80-90 hours a week for anywhere from $600 to $750 a month.
The next time someone invokes the custom and culture of Western sheep grazing, picture a dead grizzly, a lonely and beholden migrant laborer, a sneezing bighorn, and a fat cat politician defending the tradition.
Not so scenic, is it?