U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced to Congress that he will close the Agricultural Research Service's (ARS) U.S. Sheep Experiment 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.) saying that the station had become a liability. Aderholt is the chair of the House 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 June 17 letter. He said the station would close Nov. 3.
Congress has 30 days to react to Vilsack's decision.
USSES was established in 1915 by then-President Woodrow Wilson and has been grazing sheep on the land for nearly 100 years.
American Sheep Industry Assn. president Clint Krebs, in a letter to ARS administrator Chavonda Jacobs-Young, expressed 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 data sets 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 regard to fire in recovering sagebrush," Krebs said.
Members of Congress from western states also sent a letter to Aderholt urging him to stop the USSES closure 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 (R., Ida.), Doc Hastings (R., Wash.), Greg Walden (R., Ore.), Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R., Wash.), Steve Daines (R., Mont.) and Raul Labrador (R., 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."
Walden added, "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. 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 told media outlets that 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 its 21 full-time employees will be offered reassignment, according to Vilsack's letter, and its $1.9 million budget for 2015 will be divided among other ARS programs in the Pacific Northwest.
His letter also notes that closing USSES would cost between $3.5 million and $5 million, depending on how many employees relocate.
Ironically, in early May, American Sheep Industry Assn. 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 the association's May 9 weekly newsletter.
The University of Idaho owns the 1,800 sheep at USSES, which are managed by ARS.