By Brett Prettyman, Salt Lake Tribune
Opponents of an emergency wild horse roundup proposed by Iron County Commissioners say the wrong animals are being targeted for reduction in the drought-stricken lands of western Utah.
The county plan "is retaliation for the Bureau of Land Management saying they needed to reduce grazing levels," said Suzanne Roy, director of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign. "They are scapegoating, once again, wild horses for the problems created by the large number of livestock grazing on our public lands."
ron County Commission chair Dave Miller said Monday afternoon that at least a partial roundup of the horses could happen this week.
"What we hope to have in place is the fine details to be able to do it this week," Miller said after meetings throughout Monday. "We won’t be able to do everything all at once. We will focus on utilizing the resources we have available and get the processing going."
In a letter dated March 30, Miller and Iron County sheriff Mark Gower asked Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Principal Deputy Director Neil Kornze to submit a plan by noon last Friday to reduce an overpopulation of wild horses in the county.
The letter asked for a plan by that deadline that would lead to action by a "time acceptable to mitigate the threats and adverse conditions," or the county would conduct its own roundup.
The letter prompted Utah BLM director Juan Palma to suggest the concept of a mutual effort to remove some of the horses.
The plan, as presented to the county by Palma, would move any captured horses to fenced property volunteered by a rancher. The BLM would supervise and feed the animals until they are moved to adoption events or holding facilities.
Palma emphasized that the federal agency will be responsible for the horses
"We will provide accountability throughout the process with strong oversight and responsibility," Palma said. "We know there are people out there concerned for the wild horses, and we will treat them well."
Late Monday afternoon, the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, Return to Freedom and Cloud Foundation sent a letter from their attorneys to national, Utah and Nevada BLM directors as well as the Iron County Commission and sheriff.
It is "particularly troubling" that the BLM is meeting to discuss the removal of wild horses from public lands, the letter said.
"We urge the Utah officials — who have no jurisdiction in this matter — to refrain from removing wild horses from BLM lands in violation of federal law," reads the letter. "We also urge the Utah and Nevada BLM offices to adhere to the federal laws, policies and procedures that are in place to protect wild horses."
Public roundups are prohibited and are punishable with a fine of up to $2,000 or imprisonment for up to a year, or both.
Miller argues the BLM is breaking federal law by not appropriately managing the herds. As the chair of the Iron County Commission, he said, he has authority under Utah State Code to arrange a roundup.
County officials complain the horses are wreaking havoc on range shared by native wildlife and by cattle that are allowed on BLM land under grazing permits. The Utah office of the BLM has estimated 1,200 horses are spread over several management units. The agency’s own plans call for 300.
"We agree with the ranchers that the BLM has done a poor job of managing the horses," Roy said. "We disagree, however, with the roundup and say managing the horses should be done humanely and cost effectively. That means no more roundups. They could be using fertility control on the wild horse populations. It has been available for decades."
Roy referred to polls that show support for wild horses and waning interest in allowing livestock.
In a Public Policy Polling survey released in January, 72 percent of respondents supported protecting wild horses and burros as "living symbols of the history and pioneer spirit of the West." In a Center For American Progress poll last summer, 29 percent of respondents supported ensuring lands are available for livestock grazing.
The proposed roundup "is a bullying tactic by ranchers who consider our public lands as their private range for grazing livestock," Roy said. "This practice is not economically or environmentally sustainable, nor is it supported by the public."
Miller said 40 to 50 ranchers allowed to graze an allotted number of cattle are being impacted by the wild horses on lands where they have permits. He pointed out that the BLM has requested, not required, that the ranchers reduce their allotments by 50 percent, to reduce animal impacts on the range.
"They were forced to cut their allotments by 50 percent just a few years ago. The suggestion of another cut was totally unpalatable for the ranchers," he said. "We are very concerned for the quality of the habitat and have the best interest of the people of in our community."