The U.S. Department of Agriculture Sheep Experiment Station at Dubois, Idaho, held its rangeland research tour last week. A diverse mix of about 30 people showed up. A fair number of neighbors -- stockmen mostly -- as well as a handful of researchers and conservation advocates.
The USDA Agricultural Research Service Sheep Experiment Station is old by the standards of federal research institutions in the west. It was established by act of Congress in the teens. It operates with the mandate of developing methods to increase “production efficiency of sheep and… improve the sustainability of rangeland ecosystems.” The station sits on nearly 50,000 acres, ranging in elevation from 4,800 feet to nearly 10,000, straddling the Idaho-Montana border. The low country is arid sagebrush steppe, and the high ground is subalpine meadow and forest up on the Centennial Range. All in all, the station runs about 3,000 mature sheep.
The station has come under fire, recently, from people concerned with wolf and bear conservation.
Managing sheep is a challenge. Anybody in the business can attest to that. Compared to other open-range livestock, sheep require much more intensive, hands-on, day-to-day management. They are susceptible to weather. Their grazing can wreak havoc on a piece of rangeland when left unattended. And, importantly, they are very vulnerable to predators.
This is the rub, especially when it comes to wolves and coyotes -- although bears also often get into trouble around sheep. Most predator species are especially challenged not to kill what may be the most defenseless animal on the range. So the assertions follow: the Sheep Station has been associated (directly or tangentially) with the deaths of wolves, and its’ high-country holdings sit smack in the center of a key dispersal corridor for grizzly bears westward out of Greater Yellowstone. Which, according to a number of folks, represents a serious problem.
I come from a family that has deep roots in the sheep business. I can appreciate the challenges of raising these animals -- especially given current market conditions. So I was excited to hear from the people who operate the station -- to hear what exactly they were involved in and how they saw their role.
Which, actually, was quite a narrow vision. Five minutes into the day, the lead researcher at the station, Dr. Greg Lewis, explained that they were not actually in the business of discussing policy or management. In fact nothing that wasn’t strictly related to rigid hypothesis-testing research. Interesting. Because to my eye relevant research of any kind is policy in application. There is no way to functionally disentangle policy from research activities. Applied research is a response to policy-relevant problems that have been identified, one way or another, by stakeholders. And applied research, by definition, informs management decisions. To argue that there is no connection is… difficult. But given the recent furor over the Sheep Station’s activities, it was easy to see why Dr. Lewis was hesitant to open a discussion of the actual on-the-ground ramifications of the station’s location and activities.
Instead we talked about individual research projects that were being undertaken at the Station. Which were a mixed bag -- in terms of design and applicability of results. I would never argue that there is no place for the research focused directly on breeding better sheep more efficiently. But, it strikes me that this mandate can be met (is being met) quite well in other locations. In other words, the Sheep Experiment Station’s rangelands -- those sensitive habitat corridors that are valuable to wolves and bears -- are not actually integral to USDA’s goals, at least as they were articulated to us on the tour. There are many other less sensitive areas in the west where the same important work could be undertaken without the potential effect on bear and wolf conservation in this region.
To the extent that we are concerned about efficient and effective engagement of our government resources, it behooves us to think critically about institutions like this one -- to think about whether they have functional value in terms of meeting substantive needs, or whether they are serving more as symbolic cultural and political statements. The Station’s recent Ecological Assessment was equivocal about tangible benefits it actually provides to the sheep industry. What I heard from local sheepmen was that they liked the idea of having a research station devoted to their industry… but I didn’t hear much about the direct benefits actually being derived.
And, ironically, the Sheep Station might play a hugely beneficial role in developing and refining predator conflict-prevention practices with sheep. If they were interested in explicitly engaging with this issue. If they were interested in making such work a clear part of their mission. They are making laudable efforts to reduce conflict with carnviores, but it would entail some acknowledgement that their mandate extends to range management practices in application rather than just maximizing efficiencies of producing sheep-related meat and fiber -- which is ultimately a policy question.
None of this is to argue that agricultural research is not of value. None of this is to argue that we should curtail or cripple the sheep industry in the Intermountain West. And, in fact, I take great issue with critiques that are leveled at the sheep industry in toto.
I had a brief conversation at the Sheep Station tour with a rancher of some note in this part of the world, Jim Hagenbarth. His take on things jived very well with mine. Suggesting that sheep or cattle be removed from western rangelands is shortsighted. Such advocacy fails to recognize that there is a market for the animals -- that there will always be a market for the animals -- and that many of the other alternative land uses (like real estate development) are much more ecologically and aesthetically destructive. It’s a matter of pragmatism. And realizing that the point of engagement is not around whether we have livestock on these lands… but how we have livestock on these lands. It’s about refining perspectives and practices, not waging war on an enduring cultural and economic phenomenon and all who are identified with it.
Unfortunately much of the criticism of the livestock industry is couched in terms like: “eat less (or no) beef.” When, perhaps, the smarter message is: “eat better beef.” The former makes an enemy out of every stockman working in the west. The latter allows us all room to come together and engage in ways that substantively improve quality of life for everyone and everything involved with the industry.
As Jim said: the path to substantive and sustainable progress is through cooperative community-level work. I agree.