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Private group buying USU churro sheep for $50,000

Utah State University has struck a deal to sell its flock of churro sheep for $50,000 to a private group that will continue to restore the sheep to the Navajo Reservation.

The animals are used on the reservation for food and their wool is used in making rugs."We don't want the university to get a black eye out of this," said Robert Lamb, head of USU's Animal, Dairy and Veterinary Sciences Department. "We don't feel we've done anything wrong. There's just been some unfortunate circumstances and probably some poor communication."

Lamb said the deal should be finalized within a week.

USU professor Lyle McNeal, head of the sheep program, filed suit last spring claiming the school was trying to run his program off campus. He contended the administration interfered with his fund raising and was more interested in aiding corporate agribusiness than smaller operators like the Navajos.

He alleged the land-grant school had breached his contract and denied him due process.

School administrators maintained the program had run a $125,000 debt since McNeal arrived with the sheep in 1979, and they had no money to continue its operation.

With no funds to lease pastures for the 450-strong flock, this summer McNeal agreed to use the animals in a federal coyote study in exchange for free forage. McNeal said last month that 16 of the sheep had been killed by coyotes.

The study will be over Sept. 17, and the sheep must be removed from the free pasture.

The Navajo Sheep Project board of trustees has agreed to buy the animals and move the breeding program to private pastures near the reservation in New Mexico.

McNeal will continue on as executive director of the project. Efforts to reach McNeal Tuesday were unsuccessful. The group said McNeal's work is critical.

"For people who want to maintain a rural way of life, this is a way to do it. Not everybody can move to the city and find jobs," said Ben Hatch, board chairman.

Churros once flourished on the Navajo Reservation, but the federal government hunted the 300,000-strong population to the brink of extinction earlier this century.