Wool growers fight to protect public land grazing
Agriculture is Montana's largest economic driver, generating more than $2.4 billion in cash receipts every year.
Montana's 56.5 million acres of agricultural land not only produce food that Montanans eat and materials for clothes that they wear, but they serve as a primary source of wildlife habitat and a means for conserving open spaces and preserving our hunting heritage.
In light of these realities, it seems counter-intuitive that the Montana Wool Growers Association is having to spend a substantial portion of its members' dues — intended to be used for promoting Montana's lamb and wool products — to convince our congressional delegation to support proposals that will protect agriculture-related jobs and the health of Montana's sheep industry.
But, that is the exact situation in which the association finds itself.
In fact, MWG A is presently in the midst of a nationwide fight by agriculture associations to convince Congress to prevent the shutting down of domestic sheep grazing on public lands.
This effort to defend domestic sheep grazing is the most important issue faced by America's sheep industry in 15 years.
Why is this effort necessary?
In 2010, the U.S. Forest Service removed 13,000 sheep from grazing on the Payette National Forest in Idaho. It also reduced the number of grazing acres from about 100,000 to 31,500 and admitted in its environmental assessment that its actions would result in the loss of 28 agriculture-related jobs. In fact, the Forest Service's actions have not only resulted in the loss of quality agriculture-related jobs, but have also put a sheep ranch entirely out of business.
This Forest Service decision was the result of years of costly lawsuits filed against the federal government by Western Watersheds, which has used the pretext of bighorn sheep habitat as the basis for removing domestic sheep allotments from national forests in Idaho.
What is the mission of Western Watersheds? According to Jon Marvel, the group's executive director, the primary goal of Western Watersheds is "total removal" of domestic livestock grazing on public lands from Montana to California.
MWGA has been informed that Western Watersheds and affiliated organizations are now in the process of requesting information from Forest Service personnel and wildlife management agencies in Montana regarding grazing sheep permits and bighorn sheep habitat.
It is clear that Western Watersheds intends to use this information to file suit against the Forest Service for the purpose of removing Montana grazing allotments. If the bighorn habitat policy implemented on the Payette National Forest is to be implemented in this state and across the West, up to 43 percent of domestic sheep allotments could be lost, nearly one-quarter of America's sheep producers would be impacted, and such actions could foreseeably result in a drastic reduction of Montana's and this nation's sheep production. In turn, this would negatively impact, among other enterprises, lamb processing companies, wool mills, transportation companies, military contractors, and farm and ranch implement dealers.
In response to this serious threat to the health of Montana's sheep industry, MWGA has joined with other Montana agriculture groups in requesting that Congress pass language allowing for five years of federal research to be conducted on bighorn-domestic sheep disease transmission before the federal government carries out any decision to remove domestic sheep grazing from federal lands.
This five-year moratorium on driving sheep producers from federal grazing lands is a reasonable compromise because it will allow sound science to be developed on the question of whether and to what extent diseases can be transferred between the two sheep species. It will also allow for the completion of ongoing research at the Washington State University to develop a vaccination to prevent toxin-producing bacteria from developing in bighorn sheep (a bacteria implicated in large die-offs of wild sheep), will protect the livelihoods of numerous American sheep producers from arbitrary government action, and will hold lawsuits against the federal government at bay for at least five years.
MWGA is pleased to report that Montana Congressman Denny Rehberg joined with Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson in enacting this language in the U.S. House of Representatives. In doing so, Congressman Rehberg has rightly acted to protect an entire American agricultural production industry.
MWGA is now working with Sen. Jon Tester to pass this Montana agriculture job protection language through the U.S. Senate or at least to ensure that the Senate adopts the House proposal.
Members of Congress have made a lot of noise that their highest priority is creating, protecting and saving jobs. If this is truly the case, Congress should act to save and protect Montana's lamb and wool producers and the thousands of agriculture-related infrastructure and production jobs our industry supports by passing this five-year "time out" language and by truly allowing for multiple use of public lands.
(Jim Brown is a Dillon native. He is the lawyer and director of public affairs for the Montana Wool Growers Association.)