U.S. District Court Upholds Wyoming Domestic Sheep Grazing
August 4, 2017

In a decision released Monday, July 31, the U.S. District Court for the District of Wyoming released the opinion by Judge Alan B. Johnson upholding the portion of the Medicine Bow National Forest Plan that gave preference to domestic sheep allotments within the Encampment River herd of bighorn sheep.

The decision in Biodiversity Conservation Alliance v. Jiron holds that the "viability mandate" required by the National Forest Management Act does not require the forest to be managed in order to maintain the maximum number of each species in every part of the forest, but rather gives the U.S. Forest Service flexibility to provide species viability through the entire forest.

In December 2002, the National Forest Service published their Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Medicine Bow National Forest as part of their Forest Management Plan. The statement included efforts to manage a number of bighorn sheep herds across several mountain ranges within the Medicine Bow and assigned each herd a management priority score. Specifically, the statement found that the Encampment River herd was a Priority 3 herd, warranting no habitat work.

The petitioners in this matter, the Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, commented and appealed the decision of the Forest Service. At issue was whether "species viability" under the National Forest Management Act required the agency to manage each bighorn herd individually for maximum viability or gave the agency the discretion to manage the forest as a whole to assure multiple-use. The state of Wyoming and the Wyoming Wool Growers Association joined the case as intervenors.

In reviewing the case, Judge Johnson found that "viability" in the statute was ambiguous and therefore deferred to the agency's interpretation of the term in carrying out the regulation. The result of this decision gives the Forest Service and the administration greater flexibility in drafting and implementing Forest Management Plans to manage the forest as a whole for viable species populations, not every possible individual range within that management area. The fact that the Encampment Range was surrounded and overlapped by all or parts of seven domestic sheep allotments demonstrated that certain ranges within a management plan can be managed for multiple-use, including domestic sheep, while still maintaining overall species viability.