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Federal Judge Blocks Congressional Meddling in Forest Service Protections for Bighorn Sheep in Central Idaho

For immediate release – June 13, 2012

Contacts: Jon Marvel, Western Watersheds Project, 208.788.2290
Contacts: Laurie Rule, Advocates for the West, 208.342.7024 ext. 203

Boise, ID– Today Judge B. Lynn Winmill ruled from the bench against the U.S. Forest Service and in favor of native bighorn sheep getting the protection they need from disease-carrying domestic sheep on the Payette National Forest this year. The federal case hinged on the agency’s interpretation of a legislative rider written by Rep. Mike Simpson and passed last winter that forbid the use of funds to carry out any new management restrictions not in place by July 2011. Western Watersheds Project, Hells Canyon Preservation Council, and The Wilderness Society argued that rider wasn’t relevant to allotment closures already underway.

Three allotments were slated for closure this year as part of a phased approach to protect bighorn sheep on the Payette National Forest, but the agency deferred to the rider language to undo management decisions approved prior to the rider deadline. As Judge Winmill himself described it, the Forest Service was “cherry picking” its interpretation of the rider language. The result of this misinterpretation would have been to turn more domestic sheep out in bighorn habitat in July of this year, putting bighorn sheep at an increased and unacceptable level of risk.

“Judge Winmill has correctly read the language of the Congressional rider,” said Jon Marvel, Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project. “Western Watersheds Project hopes that Congress will learn from this decision that attempts like this to micromanage federal land management agencies can and will backfire.”

The Forest Service built its case by trying to change the wording of the rider from “existed” to “implemented” but Laurie Rule of Advocates for the West, who represented conservation plaintiffs, successfully argued that the plain language of the rider meant that sheep grazing should be halted this year, in accordance with fully-considered decisions issued in 2010 and early 2011. Judge Winmill agreed.

“The court found that the Forest Service’s interpretation of the rider wasn’t reasonable, and that they need to follow the management of their own forest plan,” said Laurie Rule, the attorney on the case. “This will ensure that protections put in place by the Forest Service itself to protect native bighorn sheep populations will be carried out as intended.”

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