Reprinted with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC.
Not for republication by Wyoming media.
A southern Wyoming livestock group is asking a federal court to force the Bureau of Land Management to remove wild horses from private grazing lands adjacent to federal horse management areas within a roughly 2 million-acre patchwork of federal and private lands along the former Union Pacific railroad line.
The lawsuit, filed by the Rock Springs Grazing Association, involves private grazing lands adjacent to four federal wild horse herd management areas (HMAs), where horses are free to roam. The grazing association owns roughly 1 million acres of private lands in the Rock Springs Grazing Allotment, while 49 percent belongs to the Bureau of Land Management.
Under a 32-year-old agreement with wild horse advocacy groups, which was endorsed by BLM, the Rock Springs Grazing Association agreed to “tolerate” up to 500 wild horses on private lands, with the total number of horses across the entire Rock Springs Grazing Allotment limited to no more than 1,500 to 1,600 horses. The allotment encompasses the Great Divide, Adobe Town, Salt Wells and White Mountain HMAs.
But the largely fenceless range does not make for easy separation between public and private lands.
“There aren’t any fences within the HMAs, so the horses within the White Mountain HMA today may travel to another one tomorrow,” said Serena Baker, a spokeswoman for BLM’s Rock Springs district office. “The horses move back and forth.”
The grazing association maintains that BLM has failed to keep horse numbers in the Rock Springs area in check. As a result, the animals have degraded rangelands, leaving less forage for cattle, states the lawsuit, filed July 27 in federal district court in Cheyenne.
“BLM has never honored that agreement,” said Constance Brooks, an attorney with C.E. Brooks & Associates in Denver, who is representing the association. “This is necessary to protect the resource.”
Baker, the BLM spokeswoman in Rock Springs, declined to respond to the grazing association’s claims, citing the pending litigation.
The grazing association also charges that BLM’s recently revised wild horse policy, which calls for fewer roundups, conflicts with the 1979 agreement and a subsequent 1982 court order directing BLM to remove all the wild horses from the association’s lands “except that number which the [association] voluntarily agrees to leave in said area,” according to the group’s complaint.
New management strategy
Earlier this year, BLM Director Bob Abbey rolled out a new management strategy that calls for the agency to round up fewer wild horses and focus instead on reducing fertility and increasing adoptions to maintain “healthy” and “viable” populations. But the agency also said it would retain the controversial use of helicopters to haze animals off of private lands.
BLM adopted the new wild horse strategy under political pressure and mounting lawsuits from horse advocacy groups that argue roundups are inhumane and violate the “Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act,” passed in 1971 to preserve and protect the animals across millions of acres of range in the West.
Since the law’s passage, BLM has worked to maintain viable wild horse populations on public lands in 10 states, with the largest number of horses and burros concentrated in Nevada, Wyoming, California, Utah and Oregon. About 38,000 wild horses and burros roam BLM-managed rangelands and the herds are growing by an average of 20 percent annually, according to BLM.
In Wyoming, BLM estimates 5,300 horses roam freely, roughly 1,600 more animals than the state can handle under “appropriate herd management levels” set by the agency.
In its lawsuit, the Rock Springs Grazing Association said it no longer agrees to voluntarily allow wild horses on its lands and is seeking an injunction to remove all wild horses from private lands in the grazing allotment area “pursuant to RSGA’s request.”
Under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, private landowners cannot unilaterally remove wild horses from the range; only the Interior Department or the U.S. Marshals Service can do so. However, a landowner can ask the Interior secretary to remove horses that stray onto private land.
Traditionally BLM has met such requests through roundups and other measures, including culling horse and burro populations via animal contraceptives and other birth control measures. But the agency has had limited success, as horse populations continue to grow rapidly across the West. The agency estimates that across the entire 10-state range, horses and burros appropriate management levels by about 12,000 animals.
Wild horse advocates called the association’s lawsuit “an outrage” and said that if the group prevails, the removal of the horses could threaten the future of the mustang population in southern Wyoming, the state’s largest.
“It’s time wild horses are protected against big government-subsidized businesses,” said Ginger Kathrens, executive director of the Cloud Foundation, a wild horse advocacy group. The foundation has filed its own lawsuit against BLM, arguing that the agency is not doing enough to protect the very herds that the grazing group wants to see culled.
Meanwhile, BLM’s Rock Springs district office announced last week it would remove about 696 of the 1,000 wild horses roaming the White Mountain and Little Colorado herd management areas, leaving about 205 horses in the White Mountain HMA and 69 in the Little Colorado HMA. All mares released will be treated with a fertility vaccine called PZP (porcine zona pellucida), according to the agency.
The current population is about three times the appropriate management level the agency had set for the area, according to BLM. The last gather in the two areas was in November 2007. The 2011 gather will begin within the next 30 days and is expected to last about three weeks, according to the announcement.
Click here to read the grazing association’s complaint.