Sheep Industry’s Efforts Earn Capitol Attention

Sheep Industry’s Efforts Earn Capitol Attention

Editor’s Note: The year 2014 has been an extremely busy and active one for ASI, its member producers and the entire sheep industry. In Washington, D.C. offices and on farms and ranches across the country, a lot of behind-the-scenes work has been required to protect the livelihoods of those who raise sheep and key industry partners who make it possible. Looking ahead to 2015 – the year that will mark the 150th anniversary of ASI and its predecessors – the level of activity and effort required are likely to remain high. An article forwarded to Sheep Industry News by Jim Brown, director of public affairs for the Montana Wool Growers, puts the past year in perspective and offers a glimpse of the ongoing efforts and activities. The following piece, titled “Sheep Industry Anything By Sheepish on Capitol Hill,” was written by Phil Taylor of Environment & Energy Publishing.
Tucked deep within the massive omnibus spending bill Congress passed last January is an obscure, one-paragraph policy rider that preserves the right of sheep ranchers to trail their animals across federal lands –without the threat of protests or appeals from environmental groups. The rider, versions of which have appeared in past appropriations bills, is just one example of the sheep industry’s mark on environmental policy on Capitol Hill. With its members largely dispersed in rural Texas, California, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah, the industry is flexing its muscle in Washington, D.C., in national debates over wildlife control, sheep research, endangered species protections and federal lands policy, among others.

Its voice is the American Sheep Industry Association, a relatively small nonprofit in suburban Denver whose annual budget was less than $1 million in 2012, according to a filing with the Internal Revenue Service.

Yet it has notched key victories this summer: It helped thwart the Agriculture Department’s plan to close its U.S. Sheep Experiment Station in Idaho, it marshaled support for federal predator control, and it mobilized dozens of Western lawmakers to pressure the Obama administration to preserve sheep grazing on federal lands.

“They wield a greater influence than an objective view of the economic importance of their sector would merit,” said Andrew Wetzler, director of lands and wildlife for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which often butts heads with ASI on lands and wildlife issues.

Peter Orwick, ASI’s executive director since the late 1990s, said much of that influence comes from coalition building and a powerful lobbying team on Capitol Hill. ASI partners closely with the Public Lands Council and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which advocate for access to public lands and reforming the Endangered Species Act, among other goals.

Orwick says much of ASI’s success in Washington can be attributed to its lobbying work, which totaled more than $100,000 in 2013, a 25 percent spike above the past five years, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Its top lobbyist is Jim Richards, a former aide to the Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee’s former chairmen, Henry Bonilla (R-Texas) and Joe Skeen (R-N.M.).
Richards, who grew up on a cow and sheep ranch in southwest New Mexico, more recently served as Rep. Steve Pearce’s (R-N.M.) chief of staff and was USDA’s director of intergovernmental relations.

“Jim has been involved as a staffer on every sheep issue I’ve worked on for the past 15 years,” said Orwick, who has known Richards for decades.

One of ASI’s perennial battles is to secure funding for USDA’s Wildlife Services, an oft-maligned agency whose mission is to “resolve” human-wildlife conflicts by shooting, poisoning or trapping animals that threaten livestock or human safety, such as birds near airports.

Orwick, who was raised on a sheep and cattle ranch in western South Dakota, helps organize a coalition letter each year to appropriators.

“It’s so damn critical to our very existence,” Orwick said. More than 250,000 sheep and lambs are killed every year in America by depredation, mostly by coyotes. It’s the largest expense for livestock operators after feed, Orwick said.

But the agency has come under renewed attacks after reports that it killed more than 4 million animals last fiscal year. In summer 2011, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), backed by NRDC, the Humane Society and Taxpayers for Common Sense, authored an amendment to strip $11 million in Wildlife Service funding, but it was easily defeated.

“This is an absurd subsidy to industry,” DeFazio said. “Agribusiness, including the sheep industry, has a huge interest in keeping Wildlife Services busy and fully-funded. After all, agribusiness gets a service paid for by the federal government. The question is: should taxpayers really be funding this practice?”

DeFazio said Wildlife Services won’t disclose the money it has spent on protecting sheep from predators but says that it spends in excess of $13 million annually to protect livestock.

But Orwick’s coalition has gained influence over the years as it added signatures from ranchers, sportsmen’s groups including the National Rifle Association, pork producers and even airline pilots. The number of signatories backing Wildlife Services grew to 169 this year. The letter warns appropriators that wildlife causes more than $12.8 billion in damage each year to natural resources, public infrastructures, private property and agriculture.

ASI’s latest policy battle flared up in mid-June, when Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack proposed to key House appropriators to close the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station in Dubois, Idaho, a nearly century-old facility ASI argued plays a “vital role” in helping inform wool growers, particularly through research that replicates range conditions.

In late June, a handful of leading House Republicans including Walden, Mike Simpson of Idaho, and Doc Hastings of Washington sent a letter to Agriculture Appropriations Chairman Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) urging that the request be denied, and it was. Environmental groups are continuing to fight for its closure, arguing that the station is in a crucial wildlife corridor for grizzlies and wolves that links the greater Yellowstone ecosystem to central Idaho. Four groups in late June filed a lawsuit asking a federal judge to ban the station’s sheep from grazing on public lands.


ASI takes aim at bighorn plan

ASI’s policy team spent much of 2014 girding for a major battle over Forest Service plans to protect wild bighorn sheep from contact with their domestic kin.

Peer-review scientific studies have confirmed that domestic sheep can transmit a pneumonia-like disease to bighorns when they come in contact on Western rangelands. The disease has caused major die-offs of bighorns of as much as 50 percent.
To reduce the threat of transmission, the Payette National Forest in 2010 finalized a plan to reduce grazing by 70 percent, a move that put at least one rancher out of business and significantly cut grazing levels for Margaret Soulen Hinson, an ASI board member.

Simpson, who was then chairman of the subcommittee that funds the Forest Service, inserted a policy rider in the House’s fiscal 2012 spending bill ordering a one-year moratorium on domestic sheep reductions.
But sheep advocates fear the Payette decision is only the tip of the iceberg of what could be an existential threat to Western ranchers.

The Forest Service’s intermountain region is circulating an internal strategy for deciding whether further grazing reductions are needed to keep domestic sheep from contacting bighorns.

“By February 2015, the Forest Service will decide the fate of an untold number of ranchers,” Orwick said, noting that roughly 10 percent of the agency’s grazing allotments overlap with bighorn sheep habitat.

Sheep backers say it’s unclear whether domestic sheep can be blamed for the disease, since some bighorn die-offs have occurred in the absence of domestic herds.

But if the Forest Service does decide to move a sheep operator, it must offer immediate access to comparable grazing lands, Orwick said.

Western lawmakers and governors are stepping up lobbying efforts, too.

This summer, 37 House and Senate lawmakers – mostly Republicans and many of whom have accepted ASI donations – sent a letter to the secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior warning that bighorn sheep protections threaten to eliminate nearly one-fourth of the domestic sheep industry.

“The Payette decision, that’s not acceptable,” Orwick said. He said lobbyists would be urging Congress to take a more active role in the bighorn issue, potentially through appropriations riders. “Every 30 days, the pressure’s going to go up again.”
Conservationists say they plan to also engage on the issue.

“We’ve certainly got the science on our side: that disease transmission exists,” said Craig Gehrke, who leads the Wilderness Society’s Boise office. “We’re finally seeing the agencies make some long-overdue movements to protect bighorn.”

But Gehrke warned that it will be difficult to find alternative grazing areas for domestic sheep that do not place new threats on native species like sage grouse or federally protected bull trout.

When asked if the sheep industry should be worried, Gehrke said, “They ought to be.” 
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