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Stuck in the middle
Montana’s Centennial Valley runs parallel to a desolate 54-mile stretch of rough gravel road between Interstate 15 and Idaho Highway 87. The Centennials themselves dominate the entire southern horizon, while the Gravelly Range of the Beaverhead National Forest rises slowly away to the north. Sagging homesteads dot the valley floor, as do cluttered ranch yards and herds of cattle. The eastern half of the valley is occupied by Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, and its manager, Bill West, recognizes just how wild and unforgiving this side of the state line can be.
“The Centennials shade the valley halfway out, so the grass doesn’t grow very well,” West says. “Anybody who homesteaded in this valley nearly starved to death.”
Across the border in Idaho, the story goes a bit differently. Ranchers have it easier in the gentler, sloping terrain, particularly those grazing sheep. The Forest Service and the BLM leased out allotments to private herds for decades. Until the mid-1930s, the Centennials were in the middle of a giant expanse between Burley, Idaho, and Melrose, Mont., where Frank Hagenbarth’s Wood Livestock Company ran sheep and cattle. The company went “flat-ass broke” in 1935, says Jim Hagenbarth, Frank’s grandson and himself an old-timer among local ranchers.
This grazing range occupies a large swath of land just outside the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s grizzly recovery zone. The region’s bear population has rebounded dramatically over the years, with current population estimates around 700. The ecosystem is isolated from other existing grizzly habitats, and as with wolves, the bears are expanding their territory. West has noted an increase in the frequency of griz sightings over the past 10 years. Subadult males and sows with cubs have popped up on trail cams, “younger bears testing the landscape,” as West puts it. In response, federal agencies have voluntarily withdrawn grazing allotments at higher elevations—except the USSES, which continues to run sheep in the summer on an allotment at the head of Odell Creek just above the Red Rock Lakes refuge.
“Essentially, the Sheep Station just proposes to continue doing what it has always done, regardless of the cost to wildlife and changes in the importance of the area to wildlife,” said Sterling Miller, a senior wildlife biologist with the National Wildlife Federation, during a radio commentary on KUFM in September 2011. “In these days, when the federal government is looking for ways to cut money and unnecessary programs, this stubbornness undercuts public support for the Sheep Station.”
The sheep station’s history dates back to the 1910s and early ’20s, when the presidential administrations of Woodrow Wilson and Warren Harding set aside nearly 28,000 acres in the area for use in sheep grazing and breeding research. The station’s objective to this day remains “increasing production efficiency for sheep and … simultaneously improve the sustainability of rangeland ecosystems.” But the intervening decades have seen massive conservation efforts to recover Yellowstone National Park’s grizzly population, and the Centennials are now recognized by biologists as a potential corridor for genetic exchange, even repopulation of the Selway-Bitterroot Ecosystem that remains devoid of resident griz. The USSES is in the center of that potential corridor, grazing a domesticated species that are easy pickings for the bears.
“What this place adds to the grizzly world is genetic connection potential,” West says. “And with that, I believe most people who have livestock understand genetics enough to know that if the government’s identified that as an improvement to bear management, then this is an important part of the bear puzzle. That means a change to their lifestyle some, but hopefully not one that’s a deal killer or a business killer.”
Federal officials have repeatedly acknowledged the potential for griz conflicts throughout the Centennials in recent years—specifically on USSES property. In a biological opinion dated November 2011, the Fish and Wildlife Service wrote that telemetry data gathered by bear biologists “have documented 5 different collared grizzly bears” on USSES allotments since 2001. The document clearly outlines the potential problems of habitat displacement and food habituation for grizzlies resulting from grazing, and the subsequent necessity to remove problem bears from the population. Similar concerns extend to the recreating public in the Centennials, a popular location for both backcountry hikers and hunters. “Grizzly bears may be harmed or killed in defense of human life by recreationalists,” the opinion states. “Big game hunters may mistakenly identify grizzly bears as black bears and kill them. In other cases, individuals may maliciously kill grizzly bears.”
The FWS concluded in 2011 that “although we anticipate take of grizzly bears from habituation to humans and mortality due to human/bear conflicts,” continued grazing by the USSES in the Centennials would not reduce grizzly bear survival or recovery. Still, the agency’s final recommendation was that the sheep station “seek replacement lands outside of known grizzly bear use areas.” The BLM released a similar recommendation that fall, stating, “it is our belief that the goals and objectives of the USSES can be achieved in an area that doesn’t pose a significant threat to grizzly bears.”
The USSES did voluntarily retire its Tom Creek allotment in the eastern Centennials in 2010 to avoid grazing on an adjacent Forest Service allotment contained in the primary conservation area for Yellowstone grizzlies. But despite the federal recommendations issued in recent years, a herd of sheep was passing through the Odell Creek allotment—under the watchful eye of a sheep herder and several guard dogs—at roughly the same time 726 was making his way west from Sawtell Peak.