Hunters could gain access to more than 16,000 acres of prime wildlife habitat in the Centennial Mountains with some basic changes to the way a federal research facility is run.

For over a year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been trying to close the Agricultural Research Service’s Sheep Experiment Station based in Dubois, Idaho. The outdated facility doesn’t conduct the type of high-value research that would benefit the American sheep industry, Agriculture Sec. Tom Vilsack wrote in a letter to Congress. He proposed moving the station’s research to a facility in Clay Center, Neb., that is equipped with modern labs and with the capacity to do good research. But twice now, Congress has rejected the station’s closure, at the request of the American Sheep Industry which wants the station maintained.

So how does that affect wildlife, habitat and hunters? The station, founded in 1915, includes 16,000 acres in Montana that sit along the Continental Divide in the Centennial Mountains. The area is just south and above the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, squarely in the middle of the “High Divide, a crucial migratory corridor between the Greater Yellowstone region with the wilderness of central Idaho. The area supports abundant wildlife including elk, moose and antelope, as well as numerous birds and nongame species. It also offers incredible hunting opportunity.

This year the National Wildlife Federation analyzed the research conducted at the Sheep Station. It found that the high-alpine meadows of the station are not essential to the research conducted there. NWF, the Montana Wildlife Federation, and the Idaho Wildlife Federation have urged the congressional delegation from Montana and Idaho to resolve the conflicts with wildlife on the station by permanently removing the domestic sheep from the alpine meadows. Those conflicts are real – in recent years a couple grizzly bears have been found dead on the station lands. In addition, the presence of domestic sheep there precludes the opportunity to reestablish native bighorn sheep. And the area is off limits to hunters.

These high meadows, which sit at more than 10,000 feet elevation, aren’t essential to the station’s mission: for the past two summers, the University of Idaho, which owns the sheep grazed there, has not used the meadows.

This is one of the rare cases in which we can have a win-win solution that benefits everyone. Sheep producers can get better research, taxpayers can get a better return on their money, and we can reclaim an important stretch of wildlife habitat. Whatever the future of the Sheep Station is, it shouldn’t include livestock grazing in an area that is so rich in wildlife.

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