Settlement to remove wild mustangs from Wyo. grazing lands riles mustang advocates

Posted: Mar 25, 2013

Written by

Phil Taylor, Greenwire
Wild horses

For more than three decades, the Rock Springs Grazing Association had agreed to allow up to 500 wild horses to roam free among herds of cattle it grazes on a checkerboard of public and private lands in southwest Wyoming.

But as numbers swelled into the thousands, the horses degraded the rangelands and left less forage and water for cattle and big-game populations of elk, deer and antelope.

The grazing association in July 2011 sued the Interior Department, which manages the public lands in the checkerboard, claiming it had failed to uphold its agreement to keep wild horse herds in check.

In a settlement announced in February, Interior's Bureau of Land Management agreed to remove all wild horses from the 2-million-acre Wyoming checkerboard and to consider "zeroing out" two other herd management areas surrounding the grazing lands. But wild horse advocates have objected to the agreement, weighing in with legal briefs.

U.S. District Judge Nancy Freudenthal in Cheyenne, Wyo., is expected to rule on the settlement soon.

It's the latest salvo in an ongoing battle between ranchers and mustang advocates over the management of wild horses that have roamed the West for centuries.

While horse advocates regularly sue to block roundups or halt the use of helicopters and other gather methods, the Rock Springs lawsuit is a sign that ranchers, too, are willing to flex their legal muscles to keep horses in check. In the middle of the fight is BLM, which by law must contain horses to where they roamed in 1971 while navigating the gantlet of legal challenges.

The American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, the Cloud Foundation, and the International Society for the Preservation of Mustangs and Burros intervened in the Rock Springs case, filing an objection to the settlement. They claim wild horses have a statutory right to be on the land, whereas livestock only have a privilege.

The settlement "will have extreme consequences for the wild horses that are currently roaming free on the public lands of the Wyoming Checkerboard," attorney Katherine Meyer, of the public interest law firm Meyer, Glitzenstein and Crystal, wrote in a court filing opposing the settlement. "The decree proposes to entirely eliminate more than one-third of the current allowable wild horse population in the state."

Lloyd Eisenhauer, a former BLM manager in the Rock Springs and Rawlins areas, joined the groups, claiming that BLM has "no authority or precedent" to zero out two wild horse herds that have been managed for decades, despite the demands of private livestock grazers.

But BLM has long warned that the 37,000 horses roaming 179 herd management areas nationwide are about 11,000 more than the range can sustain.

The grazing association, the nation's largest, said BLM had failed to uphold a 34-year agreement to limit the number of horses on private lands. Instead of culling more wild horses, BLM in 2011 announced it would reduce wild horse gathers by 25 percent nationwide, further inflaming tensions on the Wyoming checkerboard.

Under the advice of then-Interior Deputy Assistant Secretary Sylvia Baca that a legal filing would be necessary to compel agency action, the association sued, according to its court filing.

"The excess numbers of wild horses cause deterioration of rangeland resources, including loss of native vegetation and damage to riparian areas on both the public and private lands," the association said in its lawsuit.

In addition, the horses have been known to degrade creek beds and "harass wildlife" to defend their access to scarce water in a region that receives less than 10 inches in precipitation a year.

"They kind of moved in and never moved out," Constance Brooks, an attorney with C.E. Brooks & Associates in Denver, who is representing the association, said of the horses.

Brooks said it would be possible to manage horses on private lands if it weren't for their exceptional growth rate. Herds grow about 20 percent each year, doubling every four years, according to BLM.

"I should be very clear that my clients like wild horses," she said. "Many of them have adopted wild horses."

But the largely fenceless checkerboard does not make for easy separation between public and private lands.

Under the proposed settlement, BLM would remove all wild horses from the checkerboard, with the exception of 205 to 300 from the White Mountain Herd Management Area. If horse numbers exceed 300, BLM would reduce the number to roughly 200 and consider using fertility drugs or the spaying of mares or gelding of stallions. BLM would initially use the contraceptive vaccine SpayVac.

In addition, the settlement requires BLM to initiate National Environmental Policy Act reviews to consider zeroing out the Salt Wells and Divide Basin herd management areas and managing the White Mountain HMA as a nonreproducing herd.

While BLM is taking steps to increase its use of fertility control, the growth of herds and the lack of natural predators has forced the agency to remove several thousand horses annually. Roughly 50,000 are being held in corrals and pastures, which are responsible for more than half the agency's $75 million horse and burro budget.

In addition to using fertility drugs, BLM has proposed wild horse eco-sanctuaries in Wyoming and Nevada to care for excess horses, and it has commissioned a National Academy of Sciences study of cost-effective solutions.

Still, the program continues to attract scrutiny from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who in February demanded that BLM find more cost-effective and humane ways to manage the herds (Greenwire, Feb, 14).

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