An Idaho federal judge found the U.S. Forest Service in contempt of court Tuesday, concluding the Forest Service used a flawed study as the basis to ban domestic sheep and goats from some of its lands.
The lawsuit came in 2015 after the Shoshone National Forest prohibited domestic sheep and goats from entering the forest to prevent the spread of deadly diseases to bighorn sheep.
The contempt of court ruling, made by B. Lynn Winmill of the U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho, requires the Forest Service pay for legal fees for the Idaho Wool Growers Association and the North American Packgoat Association, the two plaintiffs in the case. It does not go as far as the groups requested by ordering additional fines and reversing the sheep and goat ban.
Winmill deferred ruling on the specifics of the ban, instead ordering a “status conference” with the groups to discuss the issue. Packgoats are often used by backpackers and hikers to carry food and other supplies on backcountry trips.
Andrew Irvine, a Jackson-based attorney representing the Packgoat Association, praised the judge’s decision.
“Obviously, this upcoming status conference with the court will determine what happens to the existing Shoshone Land Management Plan and the Forest Service’s decision to ban domestic sheep and goats on the Shoshone National Forest,” Irvine said. “I am hopeful the Forest Service will be willing to sit down and work with NAPGA on a reasonable solution.”
The Forest Service received the ruling, and its Office of General Counsel is reviewing it, said Jace Ratzlaff, regional legislative affairs and SRS coordinator for the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Regional office.
The North American Packgoat Association sued the Forest Service in 2015, claiming the Forest Service used a flawed, and illegal, study to ban domestic sheep and goats.
That study came from 2006 in the Payette National Forest in Idaho. Groups sued over the report, stating it was completed without representation from “anyone engaged in domestic sheep management or behavior,” according to Winmill’s ruling.
A judge in 2009 sided with the groups, and added that the study’s findings could not be “relied upon by the Forest Service with respect to any future agency decisions.”
When the Shoshone National Forest released its final 2015 plan banning domestic sheep and goats, it used too many of the study’s findings, including exact wording from portions of the document, Winmill found.
“The court order from 2009 was fairly black and white, and it said not to use these documents,” said Steve Kilpatrick, executive director of the Wyoming Wild Sheep Foundation. “It’s unfortunate that the Shoshone cut and pasted so many of the documents and didn’t cite additional research in its finding.”
The science behind disease transmission between domestic sheep and goats and wild sheep, and the merit of keeping the animals separate, is still sound, he said. Bighorn sheep herds, he added, continue to face die-offs across the West because of interactions with domestic livestock.
The Packgoat Association plans to meet with the Forest Service and the judge, and Irvine hopes they can reach an agreement that allows recreationists to use pack goats in the Shoshone forest once again.