Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Under pressure from disgruntled Utah ranchers, back to back years of drought and a new lawsuit, the Bureau of Land Management of Utah said it has received emergency approval to remove 200 wild horses from parched rangeland.
"We are still evaluating the needs statewide to determine where the 200 head of animals should be gathered," said BLM spokeswoman Megan Crandall.
Critics say the effort is too little, too late, to rectify a situation that has been festering for years.
"Can you hear that drop in the bucket?" asked Mark Ward, public lands attorney and senior policy analyst with the Utah Association of Counties. "It is a big concern for us, and time is of the essence to get these horse numbers reduced."
BLM Utah Director Juan Palma has said the agency is anxious to fix the problem but conceded it won't happen overnight, or even in a few months.
"It will not be resolved in a one-time gather," Palma said. "But we feel comfortable we can resolve this over a few years to bring this to appropriate management levels."
Ward said the Utah Association of Counties is preparing to file a friend of the court brief in support of the Western Rangeland Conservation Association, a consortium of ranchers, businesses and government officials that lodged a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of the Interior on April 30.
The suit contends there are as many as 351 excess wild horses on eight herd management areas that the BLM has acknowledged it has no resources to remove.
Excess horses are jeopardizing ranching operations and the condition of the rangeland in general, including posing threats to water resources, wildlife and economic livelihoods, the suit states. The horses have also strayed onto private lands, and the federal agency has made no attempt to rectify the situation, according to court documents.
"This is such a clear violation of the law to see the herd numbers of the wild horses in the desert be so far in excess of what the stated numbers are," Ward said. "It is a discouraging and a great concern to all the counties to see the BLM not comply with the very clear law on this."
Ward said the Utah Association of Counties is poised to jump in and support the lawsuit because the issue extends far beyond individualized complaints in Beaver and Iron counties, where elected officials have threatened to roundup on the horses on their own.
"This threatens the livelihood of several counties," he said. "It is a matter of statewide concern for (the Utah Association of Counties) to come in and support the counties in this regard."
Although Utah ranchers have been pestering the BLM to remove the excess wild horses, their frustration reached a boiling point when the agency in turn told them to reduce grazing allotments by up to 50 percent because of rangeland conditions.
The BLM is strapped for resources to address the excess populations, and its holding capacity is nearly breached. Statewide, the agency has room for about 1,800 animals and now has 1,600 in pens at Gunnison and Delta.
"This is a problem that has been growing and growing. it is just this year that it has got completely out of hand," Ward said. "What we are finding now there is a real danger of permanent destruction of a lot of the rangeland in the west desert."
Ward said the issue goes beyond ranchers versus wild horses.
"This is a matter that really is an environmental problem," he said. "Everybody who cares about the rangeland environment out there, regardless of where you come from politically and ideologically, this should be a great concern to everybody. The damage could become permanent."
The BLM is also preparing an environmental analysis on a proposed wild horse roundup and fertility treatment in the Bible Spring Complex that includes four herd management areas.
The roundup would take place in western Iron and Beaver counties of horses that are about 30 miles west of Minersville. The complex includes approximately 222,929 acres of public, private and state lands.
Under the proposal, the agency would remove excess horses and apply fertility control between two and four times over 10 years.
Written comments will be accepted by letter or email until May 30 at: BLM Cedar City Field Office Attn: Cedar City Field Office Manager, 176 E. DL Sargent Drive, Cedar City, UT 84721, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Friday and Saturday, the BLM is hosting wild horse and burro adoptions at its Delta Wild Horse Facility and at the Cedar City Wild Horse Corrals.
Horses are available on a first-come, first-served basis for $125, with a second "buddy" available for $25.
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