Federal Judge Throws Out Wyoming Lawsuit Requiring BLM to Round Up Overpopulated Horses - Wyoming Magazine


Federal Judge Throws Out Wyoming Lawsuit Requiring BLM to Round Up Overpopulated Horses


Wild Horses Win in Wyoming Round up Request

Wild horses still roam millions of acres in the United States. They live on public lands shared with hunters, loggers, and increasingly, ranchers looking to use the land for grazing their cattle and sheep. In 1971, Congress approved the Wild Free-roaming Horses and Burros Act to ensure the wild herds are maintained without harassment where they presently live. The Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture are in charge of ensuring the horses and burros are studied, counted, and removed if too many inhabit their designated areas. The habitat where the horses live is managed by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM). And all this public land is bordered by private lands being used for urban expansion and commercial purposes, namely ranching. This is where things get sticky.

In December 2014, Wyoming filed a lawsuit in federal court to compel the BLM to immediately round up horse herds in seven of their 16 wild horse management areas where herd sizes were up to 106 percent higher than regulations allow. For the second time, a request for round ups came before United States District Judge Nancy Freudenthal, and this time, in April 2015, she ruled that numbers alone could not compel the BLM to round up horse herds. In an effort to clarify the issue, Judge Freudenthal reiterated that simply having higher than expected populations did not warrant action be taken. She stipulated that there are several factors involved in determining if action is needed at all, and the scope of action required. However, she did not specify what other factors are involved in approving a roundup, which leaves the issue unresolved at this time.

North America’s wild horses and burros are descended from animals brought by Spanish explorers in the 1500s that were freed or escaped once they arrived. Traveling in herds, most of the wild horses gradually settled in 10 Western states and live on lands that are shrinking as cities expand, more people and industries move west, and suitable habitats are made unlivable by commercial exploitation and overuse by domesticated animals. Wild horses live on public land maintained by taxes because the land is designated as multi-use. This means miners can operate next to campgrounds, which may include protected areas for endangered species. Hunting horses is prohibited, as is harvesting horse meat for any purpose. Horses have few natural predators and live an average of 20 years. These factors all contribute to the problem wild horses face with being managed by federal entities trying to do a fair and reasonable job on the state level. State politics further complicate the situation for the horses, as illustrated by the latest lawsuit in Wyoming.

Ranchers using public lands to feed cattle resent wild horses because they thrive in the same areas where cattle enjoy grazing. Wyoming ranching organizations were plaintiffs in the round up lawsuit along with state legislators. Wyoming governor Matt Mead supports all pro-rancher decisions and is a rancher himself. This top down pressure has successfully swayed decisions in the rancher’s favor many times in the past. However, this latest decision by Judge Freudenthal demonstrates that the horses still have supporters willing to fight for wild horse herd preservation. Local and national animal rights groups, some specifically focused on wild horse rights, and often the Secretary of the Interior are in opposition to the rancher’s demands. For now, the herds targeted by the lawsuit are safe from being rounded up and dealt with according to BLM’s current storage capabilities, and that is a separate issue altogether.

When round ups occur, the BLM often chooses to use helicopters to find the horses and cut individuals from the group. This birds eye view cannot determine when horse families are traveling together, if mares are pregnant, if foals are orphaned or ill, or the myriad other considerations necessary to ensure that the horses left behind will have enough social structure left to thrive. The helicopters also terrify the animals, causing the horses to react in ways that cause injury and death during the round up stampede that can take place over many miles. The captive horses are separated by gender and age, then shipped to Midwestern holding facilities pending adoption or destruction, depending on current costs and budgets. Some horses end up in sanctuaries on private lands, where admission fees and donations defray some of the cost of their maintenance. Often the number of wild horses in captivity is greater than the number still roaming free. At least two-thirds of the costs for maintaining wild horses are for long-term storage facilities in the Midwest, and can cost taxpayers up to $85 million a year.

Approximately twenty-five percent of Wyoming is public land, mostly located in the south western corner of the state. According to the BLM’s count, Wyoming’s wild horse herds number 3760 as of March 2015. The maximum allowable is 3725 horses, so the population in Wyoming is not as out of control as nearby states. However, the total number of wild horses in management areas is 47,329, with the maximum set at 26,715. Wyoming’s herd is far from the largest, but Wyoming politics make the problem seem much larger than figuring out how to capture 35 animals before the next count takes place.

Several Facebook users, animal rights bloggers, and concerned citizens around the country have written Governor Mead to protest how often and how aggressive the round ups have become in Wyoming. A Facebook page, Wildhorses Public Enemy #1 Wyo Gov Matt Mead, tracks the governor’s wild horse related decisions as well as the fate of wild horse populations around the country. Filmmakers have posted numerous videos on YouTube depicting round ups, horse destruction, and images of wild horses roaming free. And animal rights groups have become involved in lawsuits to stop proposed round ups and to agitate for more humane care of wild horses taken into captivity. Time will tell how effective these grassroots efforts truly are.

In 2003, Wyoming and the BLM agreed that Wyoming’s wild horses would be kept strictly within federally approved levels. Up to 90 percent of a wild horse population may be rounded up at one time in order to bring the herd to the previously determined maximum level. Remember the 35 excess horses still wild in March 2015? Those 35 horses violate the agreement and provide legal grounds for another lawsuit to force a BLM round up.

One problem with the round ups is that they are supposed to occur when the mares are not pregnant, or when there are young foals that may be separated from their mothers too soon to survive. Past round ups across the state have demonstrated on ongoing resistance to this ruling, with the result that members of the herds left behind are made up, not of families, but of orphans who do not always know how to create new families. Observers note groups of all males, or family groups with multiple males, which leads to higher rates of fighting for females than normal. There are also fewer reported sightings of healthy foals, or any foals in some areas. This lack of wild horse youth will over time diminish herd size and diversity, ultimately causing herds in affected areas to die out or require further human intervention to remain viable. And many areas do not contain the right balance of males and females, ideally 60/40, with the result that males are not prepared to keep their females and foals secure against more dominant males, further degrading the horse family structure and hierarchy.

Another problem is that requests for round ups can come from ranchers, who are not as interested in wild horse population maintenance are they are in using the land for their cattle to graze. Ranchers have organized into legal groups in order to file lawsuits to have wild horses removed from public land, or land adjacent to public land that is privately owned. Since the wild horses do not provide the same level of economic prosperity as the cattle and beef industry, ranchers requesting that horses be rounded up are often appeased. It can be difficult to argue with the ranchers when the horses do not have dedicated advocates with money and legal standing to fight round up requests. And money allocated to public lands is skewed heavily towards supporting grazing domestic animals, not wild populations. Ranchers can buy permits to graze animals on public land, which leads them to feel they can tell the BLM how to manage the land regardless of federal regulations that require that all users of public lands be given fair consideration. All users, of course, being wild horses, people, businesses, and other wild animals not covered by the Wild Free-roaming Horses and Burros Act.

Wild horses follow their instincts and roam where they can. Cattle ranchers follow the bottom line and seek to limit or eliminate wild horses where they can. Wyoming’s legal battles may define who wins the land battle nationally.

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