A 13-month-old lawsuit got some on-the-ground traction last week when a federal judge in Boise halted sheep grazing in a portion of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area just days before the wool-bearing critters were scheduled to be released there.
U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill brought a halt to grazing for the year on the Smiley Creek allotment, where 900 sheep were scheduled for release on June 16. That time will allow the land to rest while the U.S. Forest Service amends an October 2004 environmental study on how to manage four sheep grazing allotments in the northern Big Wood River and southern Sawtooth valleys, including the one at Smiley Creek.
"The bottom line is that sheep will be grazing nearly the entire length of two creeks containing sensitive species of fish and fish habitat adversely affected by past grazing," Winmill wrote in his June 12 decision.
John Faulkner, of Gooding-based Faulkner Land and Livestock Co., leases grazing privileges at Smiley Creek, about 40 miles north of Ketchum, as well as on the Forest Service's Baker Creek allotment, about 15 miles northwest of Ketchum. This summer, he will have to look for other places to send the 900 sheep that would have gone to the Sawtooth Valley.
"There's not a lot you can do when a judge comes up with a plan to manage the forest," Faulkner said.
Winmill's injunction last week was only the most recent in a string of rulings affecting wildlife management and grazing in the recreation area. Beginning in June 2002, in response to a lawsuit filed by Hailey-based Western Watersheds Project, Winmill found the Forest Service had failed to comply with its own timetable to revise seven SNRA allotments. Congress required the agency to adopt the schedule as part of the 1995 Recisions Act.
"The heart of that lawsuit was the Forest Service's failure to assess grazing impacts on wildlife across their allotments," said Laird Lucas, a lawyer and executive director of Boise-based Advocates for the West, which argued the cases for Western Watersheds.
Then, in an April 2003 settlement, Winmill approved the parties' agreement to set deadlines for the SNRA to revise its East Fork cattle grazing allotments in the White Cloud Mountains, a drama-filled tale by itself.
In that same settlement, the Forest Service agreed to develop new management plans for four Sawtooth National Forest sheep grazing allotments, including the one at Smiley Creek. That resulted in the North Sheep Environmental Impact Statement, which was adopted by the Sawtooth National Forest in October 2004.
Enter another lawsuit.
Western Watersheds and Randall Hermann of Ketchum filed suit in federal district court in May 2005 to appeal the Forest Service's new environmental study.
Winmill ruled in February. He wrote, most notably, that the Forest Service failed to discuss range capability and suitability in its North Sheep environmental study, thus violating the National Forest Management Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.
In his subsequent ruling on the Smiley Creek injunction, he also specified that the federal agency must revise its North Sheep environmental study.
"Before the start of grazing in 2007, the Forest Service should have completed its supplemental North Sheep Environmental Impact Statement and Record of Decision, and the deficiencies ... should be cured," Winmill wrote. "If not, Western Watersheds Project is free to challenge the Forest Service once again."
Under the forest's October 2004 decision, sheep grazing would continue to be authorized, but with some modifications, on the four grazing allotments on national forest lands near Ketchum. The Baker Creek, North Fork-Boulder, Fisher Creek and Smiley Creek allotments were included in the decision.
Ketchum District Ranger Kurt Nelson and Sawtooth National Recreation Area Ranger Sara Baldwin signed the decisions for grazing allotments within their respective jurisdictions. Collectively, the decisions included 147,000 acres of national forest range.
The decision did not demand reductions in grazing numbers in the Fisher Creek and North Fork-Boulder allotments. Reductions were ordered, however, in the Smiley Creek allotment, from 3,877 to 3,628 head per month, and in the Baker Creek allotment, from 6,530 to 5,159 head per month.
The Forest Service declined to comment on Winmill's latest decision, pending resolution of the pending litigation, and referred questions to the Department of Justice, which did not return a telephone inquiry.
Regardless of the outcome of legal proceedings, it is indisputable that sheep ranching has deep roots and is an integral part of the region's culture and history.
"Grazing remains a legitimate use of the Sawtooth National Forest and the SNRA," the environmental study states as a beginning baseline.
Since the late 1800s, range in the Sawtooth Valley and upper Big Wood River drainage have provided summer grazing for bands of sheep following seasonal patterns throughout the region.
Sheep numbers peaked in the early 1900s, and grazing damage was widely evident. Grazing allotments were established by the Forest Service in 1907 to begin controlling grazing and the associated impacts.
In 1907, 364,000 sheep were permitted on the forest. That number has declined steadily, and sheep numbers are now at 7 percent of their historic high.
The study concludes that grazing management must "reflect the need for continued progress in reversing the impacts of historic grazing."
And that's part of the point behind the lawsuit, Lucas said, charging that the Forest Service continually and blatantly violates the laws designed to govern the land it holds in trust for the American people.
"Is the land capable of sustaining grazing over time without suffering irreparable harm?" Lucas asked, alluding to the Forest Service's North Sheep environmental study. "That's Range Science 101."