By Tracie Sullivan, The Spectrum
CEDAR CITY – After giving the federal government a deadline of July 1 to get the overpopulated number of wild horses off the range or they would take matters into their own hands, the Iron and Beaver County commissioners have decided instead to turn some of the reins over to Rep. Chris Stewart — at least for now.
The battle between Iron and Beaver County commissioners and the federal government over the wild horse issue began in April when the six men wrote a letter to the Bureau of Land Management, threatening to deal with the overpopulated horse herds on the western range if the federal government started rounding up Bunkerville rancher Cliven Bundy’s cattle.
Bundy’s fight with the federal government dates back several years in which the rancher quit paying allotment fees to the BLM, arguing the public land his livestock graze on belong to the state of Nevada.
Since then, the county commissioners have continued challenging the federal government with repeated ultimatums and various threats.
That all changed a few weeks ago when the commissioners, along with several of their colleagues from various rural Utah counties, were invited to Washington D.C. by Stewart where, as part of the visit to the nation’s capital, they met with several key figures to discuss issues impacting their areas.
It was in this visit that Iron County Commissioner Dave Miller said he and his colleagues walked away from knowing they had to let the issue run its course through Congress before they could act.
Beaver County Commissioner Mark Whitney agreed, stating that they cannot break the law just because they believe the federal government has done so by violating the Wild Horse and Burro Act.
Passed by Congress in 1971, the act charges the BLM with managing the horses, which includes maintaining the populations at what is referred to as the appropriate management levels.
“Just because they’ve broken the law, doesn’t mean we’re going to do the same thing,” Whitney said. “Two wrongs don’t make a right. And they have the right to arrest us if they think we broke the law — we don’t have the right to arrest them if we think they have.”
The commissioners have previously maintained they have the right to go in and take care of the horses themselves under Utah code. While Whitney said they still believe that, the law is left up to interpretation.
“We still believe we have the right to go in and deal with those horses ourselves because the law states that if it affects the health, safety, and welfare of our citizen,s we can take care of it, and we believe this issue does affect the health, safety, and welfare of our citizens. But the fact is the federal government doesn’t think it is,” Whitney said.
Miller said he also believes the county commissioners need to work with Stewart’s office while doing everything they can to continue to put pressure on the federal government.
“We have to exhaust every source of redress we have,” he said. “That’s the responsible approach to this whole thing.”
Stewart plans to introduce a bill that will turn the management of the wild horses over to the states.
However, with the cost of rounding up one horse estimated to be $300 to $400, Miller argues there would have to be a transition period in which the federal government would temporarily be responsible at least in part in helping the state pay for the gathers.
In addition, Miller said the BLM currently is given two conflicting directives, which he noted is part of the problem and would have to be corrected in the bill to allow Utah the right to deal with the horses as they see fit.
“They’re mandated by law to bring those populations down to appropriate management levels immediately when they go over what they are allowed, but at the same time, they are told they cannot euthanize nor can they slaughter the horses.”
Miller said the commissioners are closely watching and continuing to monitor the range conditions which they maintain is serious at this point.