Tenth Circuit Court dismisses wild horse suit by State of WyomingWritten by Saige Albert
On Oct. 10, The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit upheld a Wyoming district court decision by Judge Nancy Freudenthal, dismissing a lawsuit by the State of Wyoming demanding the Secretary of the Department of the Interior remove wild horses from public lands.
“The Attorney General appealed a federal district judge’s 2015 decision to dismiss Wyoming’s suit against the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) over wild horse management in Wyoming. The 10th Circuit upheld the 2015 ruling,” says Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead.
Mead continues, “I am disappointed and have asked the Attorney General to review our options. BLM is not managing wild horse populations as required under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act. Wild horse populations, according to the BLM March 2016 report, are over appropriate management levels in every herd management area except one in Wyoming. Wyoming wildlife and wild horses are treasured assets. Mismanagement adversely affects all species and the rangelands necessary for their health and survival.”
“In August of 2014, Gov. Mead notified federal officials of his intent to sue if they did not comply with a federal legal mandate regarding excess wild horses on federal lands in Wyoming,” said Mountain States Legal Foundation’s (MSLF) William Perry Pendley. “We are disappointed in the outcome here. We believe the Secretary has a duty to remove excess horses that cause damage.”
Pendley and MSLF represented the Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA) in the case. WSGA joined in support of the state of Wyoming. MSLF also brought the original lawsuit challenging the government on behalf of Rock Springs Grazing Association.
“Wyoming argued excess wild horses destroy habitat, injure species and damage land,” Pendley explains. “In a friend of the court brief, WSGA urged the 10th Circuit to reverse the dismissal.”
WSGA’s Jim Magagna comments, “From a legal perspective, this case really just affirmed the decision of Judge Freudenthal in the district court that dismissed the Wyoming case, saying it didn’t have a cause of action.”
He continued that the decision isn’t entirely unexpected, but it also brings to light the implications of wild horse management in the future.
“The issue it brings to light is the fact that, as the courts have interpreted the Wild Horse and Burro Act, although BLM has developed appropriate management levels (AMLs) for each herd management area (HMA), those are not binding as a requirement to manage horses,” Magagna says. “The state’s claim was that all seven of the HMAs that were part of the litigation were all above AML, and BLM was obligated to proceed to the gather.”
Rather, Magagna says that the court’s decision implies that the Wild Horse and Burro Act is discretionary on the part of the BLM.
Magagna also notes, however, that this lawsuit does not apply to checkerboard lands.
“BLM has an affirmative obligation to remove horses from private lands,” he explains. “Those issues are quite different.”
Additionally, Magagna mentions that, while the suit does not preclude the State of Wyoming from reaching an agreement with BLM regarding population numbers, as was done in a previous Consent Decree, it does make the issue more difficult.
“Wild horses have become such an emotional issue,” Magagna comments. “BLM certainly gets some sympathy because they have a huge problem and a limited number of resources each year, and a greater percentage of that is gobbled up each year by horses in captivity.”
More than 60 percent of the wild horse budget for BLM is spent on managing those horses in captivity, a problem that will only be exacerbated by continued gathers.
“If they don’t continue gathering at the current or a faster pace, the resource damage will get worse,” explains Magagna. “It’s a tough position for BLM to be in, and frankly, given BLM’s reluctance to be more bold, this points to the need for congressional action to give the agency more precise direction to manage wild horses to appropriate management levels.”
“I’m not optimistic that we’re going to see sale of horses for slaughter return anytime soon, but it would be helpful to at least have some ability to sell horses to some other use without so many restrictions,” Magagna says. “Greater ability and freedom to use permanent sterilization tools without being threatened by litigation would also be helpful. These are some of the things we need to do.”