NRLC students score a victory for wildlife

December 17, 2011

Wild bighorn sheep in Idaho’s Payette National Forest now have a longer life expectancy thanks to the efforts of students at the University of Colorado’s Natural Resources Law Clinic. The students successfully advocated for, and later defended, a decision by the Payette’s supervisor to restrict grazing by domestic sheep because of the risk they may pose to the wild bighorns.

Bighorns were once abundant on the Payette and elsewhere in the Rockies, but their numbers have been severely reduced by habitat loss, disease, and other factors. A species of bacteria carried by most domestic sheep and usually harmless to them is a major threat to the remaining bighorns as it can cause a fatal pneumonia. The bighorns’ natural curiosity and social behavior exacerbates the transmission of the disease. Several herds of bighorns have died of pneumonia after coming in contact with their domestic cousins.

Currently, sheep ranchers may graze their domestic sheep on the National Forests only where authorized by permits from the U.S. Forest Service. However, the Forest Service is legally required to limit grazing so as to protect wildlife and other natural resources. In spring 2010, Natural Resources Law Clinic students Jacey Cerda and Rebecca Rizzuti, on behalf of the Idaho Wildlife Federation (IWF) and the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), prepared a legal and scientific analysis showing that the Forest Service had ample authority, and a legal duty, to terminate domestic sheep grazing on portions of the Payette National Forest where bighorns are likely to come into contact with the domestic sheep.   

In summer 2010, the Supervisor of the Payette National Forest issued a decision largely following Cerda’s and Rizzuti’s recommendations. The decision was hailed by wildlife advocates but opposed by sheep ranchers, who filed an administrative appeal of the decision.

Colorado Law students Taber Ward and Matt Samelson worked on behalf of IWF, NWF, and the Nez Perce tribe to defend the decision, writing major portions of a brief used to support the Supervisor’s decision. On April 8, 2011, the Chief of the U.S. Forest Service announced the final affirmation of the decision.