Victory in the Centennials

Grizzly bear 726 remains missing, having disappeared high in the Centennial Mountains in fall 2012 on a chunk of land grazed by federally owned sheep. But conservationists are toasting a recent victory that's tied directly to the saga of 726 and could change how the U.S. Department of Agriculture's sheep experiment station uses the landscape west of Yellowstone National Park.

The USDA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reached a legal settlement early this month with several environmental groups directing FWS to issue a new biological opinion on the sheep station's grazing activities by June 1. John Meyer with the Bozeman-based Cottonwood Environmental Law Center—one of the five plaintiffs—hopes that the subsequent analysis will finally reveal the impacts the sheep station could and is having on an expanding grizzly population.

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"I think any time you settle a case without having a judge get involved, it signifies that you had a very solid case," Meyer says. "In this case, with Grizzly 726 missing, the facts were very strong and I think the government probably saw the writing on the wall."

The settlement also forbids the sheep station from grazing on three high-elevation allotments in the Centennials until the biological opinion is complete. Grizzly 726 went missing on one of those allotments. Critics of the sheep station have repeatedly alleged that the operation has not been honest about how it deals with predators; the station itself insists it directs employees to use non-lethal means.

A nearly identical legal proceeding played out in 2007 when two environmental groups sued the USDA for having failed to assess the station's impacts at any point in its 100-year history. FWS finished that analysis in 2011. Ken Cole at the Western Watersheds Project—a plaintiff group in both cases—says he hopes the government considers the cumulative effect of grazing more "honestly" this time around.

Cottonwood continues to offer a $6,500 reward for information on 726, but Meyer isn't optimistic. He is, however, confident that the new settlement will add to the pressure on the sheep station to retire grazing on its Centennial allotments completely.

"They've settled two consecutive lawsuits, they've got a grizzly bear that's gone missing on their property, [and] every federal and state agency that's weighed in on this place has told them to find alternative grazing allotments," Meyer says. "You just have a cumulative pressure coming from virtually everybody that's concerned about grizzly bears saying, 'Find somewhere else to graze.'"

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