Montana Judge Sides With U.S. Sheep Experiment Station

At the end of May, the United States District Court of Montana ruled in favor of the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station on a motion for permanent injunction and summary judgement.

Beginning in 2012, the plaintiffs in this case - Cotton Environmental Law Center and others - filed a lawsuit against the sheep station and the Agricultural Research Service seeking a new biological opinion from the agency. Again in 2014, the plaintiffs challenged the new biological opinion they had sought, and the station's underlying National Environmental Policy Act analysis. This action effectively ceased grazing on the station's lands in this controversy, as the station agreed not to graze sheep until the completion of the ongoing NEPA. The completion of this NEPA and accompanying Environmental Impact Statement resulted in the plaintiffs seeking an injunction and motion for summary judgement against the station in March 2018.

The basis of the plaintiff's most recent claims was that sheep grazing was injurious to the grizzly bear population in the area and resulted in an increased likelihood of human-bear conflicts. The plaintiffs asserted that they had new evidence of this increased likelihood of conflict that had not been considered in the environmental documents and demanded a supplemental EIS be prepared. Citing grizzly bear activity in the vicinity of the station's lands and tangential evidence, the plaintiff's claimed the preceding final EIS was invalid.

As the judge noted, a supplemental EIS is necessary when there is a substantial change to use relevant to environmental concerns or significant new information presented. The court rejected the plaintiff's claim, finding that the evidence presented was not new in time, or new in fact.

The information regarding the possibility of human-bear conflicts was adequately considered in the final EIS and therefore a supplemental EIS was not necessary. Evaluating the plaintiff's claim under the Administrative Procedures Act, an agency action can only be set aside if it was arbitrary and capricious. Through the court's analysis the evidence supported a rational connection between the facts the agency considered and the decision they made.

Unfortunately, the station has been the target of environmental litigation seeking to remove sheep grazing for far too long. The American Sheep Industry Association and its U.S. Sheep Experiment Station Working Group members are wholly dedicated to defending research at the station for the next century though advocacy in the courts, Congress and the administration.