Grazing assoc sues over wild horsesWritten by Christy Martinez
Rock Springs – “The horses are doing a great deal of damage, and we want them removed,” says Rock Springs Grazing Association (RSGA) President John Hay of a recent request for a court order that would remove wild horses from the association’s private lands.
The case was filed July 27 in the U.S. District Court in Cheyenne and is a petition for relief to enforce an order of the court in the prior Mountain States Legal Foundation and Rock Springs Grazing Association v. Clark, Secretary of the Department of the Interior case, and to direct the defendants to “remove all of the wild horses that have strayed onto the RSGA lands within the Wyoming Checkerboard” in south central Wyoming.
According to the court case, more than 32 years ago RSGA filed suit to require the BLM and the U.S. Marshal to remove the wild horses that had strayed onto the private lands within a portion of the Wyoming Checkerboard, an area 40 miles wide and 80 miles long that follows the railroad from Tipton to Bryan, Wyo. That area covers approximately two million acres, or a section of land about one-third larger than the state of Delaware.
RSGA owns and leases approximately one million acres of private land within the Wyoming Checkerboard; the association owns multiple sections comprising approximately 550,000 acres and leases 450,000 acres from Anadarko Land Corporation. The federal sections among to those they own and lease are primarily managed by BLM, and RSGA holds their grazing leases, which compose the largest single allotment managed by BLM.
In March 1981 Wyoming’s U.S. District Court held that BLM must remove all wild horses from the RSGA lands “except that number which the RSGA voluntarily agrees to leave in said area.” In agreements reached in 1979 with Wild Horses Yes! and the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros, RSGA agreed to tolerate 500 wild horses within their lands. The RSGA and the two wild horse groups also agreed the total number of wild horses in the Rock Springs District should be no more than 1, 500 to 1,600 wild horses, including the 500 wild horses on the RSGA lands. BLM adopted the agreements between RSGA and the two wild horse organizations in its appropriate management levels (AMLs).
Now, according to RSGA, the BLM has not adhered to the original court orders or the underlying agreements.
“BLM has failed to maintain wild horse numbers at the numbers that RSGA agreed to tolerate. BLM has not been able to accurately track and count the wild horses within the RSGA lands, but readily admits they greatly exceed the agreed-upon levels in violation of the court orders, and exceed the AMLs adopted by BLM in the land use plans and a separate consent decree entered into with the State of Wyoming. As a result of the defendants’ failure to meet the agreed-upon numbers of wild horses, the rangeland resources on land owned and leased by RSGA have deteriorated and will continue to deteriorate,” says the RSGA in the court case.
As a result, RSGA has changed its agreement to tolerate 500 wild horses on its private lands to zero, “based on the defendants’ proven inability to meet and maintain the agreed-upon numbers of wild horses and the recent program changes that contradict the previous agreements.”
Nearly a year ago on Oct. 4, 2010 the association sent the BLM and DOI an official request to remove all wild horses from its lands. The agencies responded on Feb. 7, 2011, but did not agree to remove the wild horses as requested.
According to the court case, RSGA is entitled to and seeks relief in the nature of a mandatory injunction directing the agencies to immediately comply with previous court orders and remove all wild horses from RSGA lands.
Not only have the agencies failed to gather the wild horses from the private association lands, but RSGA also points out that they have instead reduced wild horse gathers and funding for those gathers by 25 percent for the foreseeable future.
The excess numbers of wild horses have caused deterioration of rangeland resources, including loss of native vegetation and damage to riparian areas on both public and private lands, and RSGA says the deterioration of resource conditions results in lower forage production, which harms RSGA shareholders who would otherwise be able to use more forage.
“Since 1995, BLM rules require that RSGA meet or maintain rangeland health standards or face reductions in livestock grazing. RSGA shareholders will face livestock grazing reductions when BLM will not or cannot acknowledge that wild horses are the significant causal factor in the failure to meet or maintain rangeland health standards and will then impose livestock grazing reductions,” says RSGA of the consequences of overgrazing by wild horses.
“We’re very much encouraged by this initiative, because the grazing association has been very patient for a long time, and this is one of the few avenues left to them,” says Wyoming State Grazing Board Rangeland Consultant Dick Loper of the case.
“It looks to me, after reading the lawsuit, that they certainly have a legitimate right and a case that the BLM is in violation of the past court order, as well as their own land use plans and policies,” says Loper.
Loper notes that many affected parties in Wyoming agree that the local BLM offices, as well as the state office, are very sympathetic to the concept that the wild horses need to be managed to AMLs.
“Instead, direction is coming from the nationally-driven program that’s too receptive to political pressure and has a top-down approach,” he comments. “Rock Springs Grazing is taking a real leadership role in this issue.”
Loper encourages other state agencies or people with a dog in the fight to weigh in.
“Some have already indicated they plan to find a way to participate in the lawsuit on behalf of the Rock Springs Grazing Association,” he says. “The Wyoming State Grazing Board would encourage those who can play a supportive role to do so.”
RSGA attorney Connie Brooks says the federal government has 60 days to respond to the lawsuit, which will be the first benchmark in the case.