By Amy Joi O'Donoghue, Salt Lake Tribune
SALT LAKE CITY — The State Wildlife Board on Thursday waded into the fray over the federal government's management of wild horses in Utah, adding its voice of displeasure about the animal's excessive numbers.
In an unanimous vote during a board meeting, members agreed to send a strongly worded letter to Juan Palma, director of the Bureau of Land Management in Utah, and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell urging the agency to take action to reduce the number of horses on the range.
Kevin Bunnell, regional supervisor with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, said Iron, Beaver and Sanpete counties have all formally asked the wildlife board for input on the issue of rangeland degradation and the risks it poses to both livestock and wildlife.
Wild horse numbers have eclipsed their "appropriate" management levels per BLM policy and are creating conflict on the range with ranchers and sportsmen. In April, Iron and Beaver counties threatened to take matters into their own hands amid a national controversy that erupted over a Nevada rancher's cattle at threat of being forcibly removed by the BLM over nonpayment of grazing fees.
Utah ranchers in Beaver and Iron counties are stinging over a request by the agency last September to voluntarily reduce their number of cattle from the range because of its inability to reduce wild horse horse populations.
The BLM's own numbers show that horses and burros number 3,245 in Utah, while the "appropriate management levels," are at 1,956.
"It is a huge situation," said Iron County's Mike Worthen, who supervises natural resources. "The horses are eating themselves out of house and home, and with it comes the wildlife."
Worthen said horses in what is called the Bible Springs complex number about 500 or more, while the BLM herd management levels say those populations should be no more than 180 animals.
Although the BLM indicated it hopes to do a wild horse gather sometime after July, Worthen and others urged the wildlife board to press the agency to act because of the dire condition of the rangeland.
"These horses have been a problem for many years, and this drought has really brought it to the forefront," said Byron Bateman, president of Sportsmen For Fish and Wildlife. "We have invested a lot of money in habitat projects and water projects, and these horses are doing irreparable harm."
Bateman and others said that, beyond impacts to ranchers, the horses are destroying prime rangeland to the detriment of all the animals the ecosystem is supposed to support.
"It is a sad thing to see something as neat as a wild horse get to the levels they are and literally eat themselves out of a home," said board member John Bair.
Bair said he visited the southwest desert a few weeks ago and was shocked at the conditions he witnessed.
"The rangeland there looked like the floor in this room. The horses are suffering, the habitat is being devastated," he said. "I don't know if we could ever do enough to offset the devastation that is coming from these animals."
Bair added the board should not flinch from making a statement given its own efforts to manage wildlife populations at given "objectives" that include numbers appropriate for the given area.
"These horses are so far over objective. If our elk and deer ever got that far over objective, we would not dare come out in public. We would be in serious trouble," he said. "We need to put the heat on the BLM to get these wild horse populations under control."
BLM spokeswoman Megan Crandall said the problem of too many wild horses in Utah has been building for some time, made worse by back to back years of drought.
"It is a convergence of several things," she said. "Some of it is budgetary, some of it is personnel and a lot of it is our capacity. Our ability to hold gathered horses in the state is limited. We can gather horses, but where do we put them?"