Last week, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced to Congress that he would close the Agricultural Research Service's (ARS) U.S. Sheep Experimental Station (USSES) in Dubois, Ida., within the year.
The Post-Register of Idaho Falls, Ida., reported June 27 that Vilsack sent a letter to Rep. Robert Aderholt (R., Ala.) on June 17, saying that the station had become a liability. Aderholt is the chair of the appropriations subcommittee on agriculture, rural development, Food & Drug Administration and related agencies.
A prolonged period of declining and flat budgets has resulted in underfunded programs at (USSES), and the unit no longer has the critical mass of scientists necessary to address high priority research, Vilsack said in the letter.
Vilsack's letter said the station would close Nov. 3. Congress has 30 days to react to Vilsack's decision.
USSES was established in 1915 by President Woodrow Wilson and has been grazing sheep on this land for nearly 100 years.
American Sheep Industry Assn. (ASI) president Clint Krebs, in a letter to ARS administrator Chavonda Jacobs-Young, expressed his disappointment with the agency's decision to close USSES, as well as the processes by which the decision was made public.
"USSES has very unique datasets and capabilities that cannot be substituted elsewhere anytime soon including 90 years of pedigree data on major sheep breeds, three of which were developed at USSES; an ongoing 90-year history on vegetation in response to fire and grazing; and over 40 years of historical and ongoing data on the sage grouse with regards to fire in recovering sagebrush," Krebs said.
Western members of Congress, in a letter to Aderholt, have asked to stop the closure of USSES by disapproving ARS's request for reprogramming of funds from the sheep station. Reprogramming of funds would result in closure of the facility.
Signing the letter were Reps. Mike Simpson (Ida.), Doc Hastings (Wash.), Greg Walden (Ore.), Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), Steve Daines (Mont.) and Raul Labrador (Ida.).
"We were disappointed to learn that ARS has plans to close USSES in Dubois and frustrated that ARS did not notify Congress or the sheep industry until the decision had been made," Simpson said. "In our letter to Chairman Aderholt, we explain that closure of the Dubois Sheep Experiment Station would have a substantial impact on the western sheep industry and express our concern that people involved in the industry were not consulted before ARS made this decision."
"I was shocked to learn that USDA is attempting to close the Dubois Sheep Experiment Station without consulting western farmers and ranchers or having a plan to ensure the station's important research continues," Walden said. "No other station conducts research into the unique challenges that confront sheep producers in Oregon and across the west, like grazing techniques, diseases, or developing new breeds. That's why we are working hard with other western representatives to keep this station open so this innovative ag research can continue."
While USSES has been the target of litigation from many environmental and anti-grazing groups, ARS director of information Sandy Miller Hays said the proposed closing was not related to past or present litigation. She said ARS has been facing budget difficulties for years and some locations across the country have "gotten to the point where, from a financial standpoint, they're either marginally viable or they're just not sustainable."
She added that as of June 23, ARS had spent "more than $1.5 million ... on responding to the legal challenges (at USSES), but dealing with those legal actions was not the deciding factor in deciding to close the station."
If the station does close, 17 of 21 full-time employees will be offered reassignment, according to Vilsack's letter, and its $1.9 million budget for 2015 would be divided among other ARS programs in the Pacific Northwest.
The letter also noted that closing USSES would cost between $3.5 million and $5 million depending on how many employees relocated.
Ironically, in early May, ASI members met with USDA officials in Washington, D.C., and were told by ARS deputy administrator Steven Kappes that "Sheep research was dealt with kindly in appropriations this year, from additional funding to an assurance that no research facilities are targeted for closure in 2015," according to an ASI weekly newsletter.
The University of Idaho owns the 1,800 sheep at USSES, which are managed by ARS.