BLM can't legally choose grazing over wild horses — lawsuit

You are here

Scott Streater, E&E News

The Bureau of Land Management cannot remove wild horses in a protected herd management area in Nevada because of a lack of forage and habitat if at the same time it is going to allow thousands of cattle and sheep to continue grazing at the site.

That's according to a federal lawsuit filed today in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia by two wild horse advocate groups and the Western Watersheds Project, which opposes livestock and sheep grazing on federal lands.

In essence, the 37-page complaint says BLM has illegally chosen grazing over wild horse protection, a violation of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act. The 1971 law requires BLM to "protect and manage" the wild horses "as 'living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West' and to ensure that 'all management activities shall be at the minimal feasible level,'" the complaint says.

"Moreover, by eliminating one of the chief uses of these public lands under the agency's multiple use mandate — i.e., wild horse use — while leaving livestock grazing virtually untouched, even though livestock use the same forage, water, and other resources as wild horses, the BLM has violated its obligation under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act to administer the public lands for 'multiple use,'" the complaint says.

The complaint asks the court to rule that BLM's roundup decision violates federal law and to issue an order forbidding the agency "from taking any further actions to round up and remove any wild horses from the Caliente Complex" until it has complied with the law.

"We are taking a stand today to stop the agency from eliminating wild horses and turning our public lands over to use by private livestock, who graze thanks to our tax subsidies," Suzanne Roy, executive director of the American Wild Horse Campaign, said in a statement.

The American Wild Horse Campaign; the Western Watersheds Project; the Cloud Foundation; and Laura Cunningham, who is identified in the complaint as a Beatty, Nev., resident and WWP's California director, filed today's lawsuit.

A BLM spokeswoman said the agency cannot comment on matters pertaining to pending or ongoing litigation.

But BLM conducted an environmental assessment this year analyzing the proposed roundup of more than 1,700 wild horses from a 700,000-acre section of the Caliente Herd Area in southeast Nevada. The roundups would be conducted in phases over a 10-year period.

The agency is desperately trying to address growing herd sizes, which can double every four years because wild horses and burros have no natural predators.

There are about 82,000 wild horses and burros roaming roughly 27 million acres of federal herd management areas, mostly in the West. That's more than three times the appropriate management level, or what regulators believe is the maximum number of animals the rangeland can sustain.

Congress, too, has been wrestling with how to address the growing herds, which are causing damage to vegetation, soils and other resources (E&E Daily, June 6).

BLM spent nearly 60 percent of its $81 million Wild Horse and Burro Program budget in fiscal 2017 on caring for 46,000 unadopted and unsold horses and burros that have been rounded up off the range, the agency told Congress in April.

BLM estimates it would cost the agency a total of $1 billion to care for the 46,000 animals during their lifetimes.

The agency recently launched a website designed to increase adoptions of tens of thousands of wild horses and burros that have been rounded up from federal rangelands (E&E News PMMay 18).

Congress, however, has rebuked proposals by the Trump administration to remove restrictions on the sale or transfer of wild horses and to allow for the limited use of euthanasia for horses and burros that cannot be adopted or that are older or sick.

The legal complaint says BLM also "failed to give full and accurate consideration to the alternatives to, and the environmental impacts of," removing all the wild horses. And BLM has also failed to "provide any data to support its conclusory assertion that the Caliente Complex is no longer 'adequate' for wild horse use," it says.

Advocates also question the logic behind removing the wild horses at the complex while allowing more than 4,500 cows and sheep to continue to graze there.

Bill Eubanks, a partner in Meyer Glitzenstein & Eubanks LLP, a Washington, D.C.-based public interest environmental law firm that is representing the groups, said BLM cannot arbitrarily choose grazing over the congressionally mandated task of managing wild horses and burros.

"We are directly challenging the BLM's decision to eradicate all federally-protected wild horses from the public lands within the Caliente Complex while continuing to authorize thousands of privately-owned cattle to graze the same area," Eubanks said in a statement.

"The BLM's decisions to 'zero out' this Congressionally-designated wild horse habitat clearly violates the agency's obligations to protect wild horses under federal law," he added. "Therefore, we are asking the court to vacate these illegal decisions in order to protect the wild horses of the Caliente Complex."

Originally posted by E&E News