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Utah weighs in on BLM plan for southern Utah's wild horses

Published: Tuesday, June 24 2014 9:38 a.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Multiple Utah entities that include the Utah agriculture department and school trust land managers say a Bureau of Land Management plan approved Monday removing wild horses does not go far enough and will take too much time.

Too many horses, they argue, render vast swaths of land useless by destroying the vegetation and landscape to the peril of other animals.

"They're literally eating themselves out of house and home," said Mike Worthen, natural resources manager for Iron County.

Instead, the groups want the "permanent and immediate" removal of nearly 700 wild horses in the Bible Springs complex in western Iron and Beaver counties to be carried out this year so numbers are brought to low as 80, especially contemplating reproductive rates for the horses that remain.

"Failing to remove the excess wild horses immediately could result in the BLM having to remove more than triple the number of horses as indicated by the chart prepared by Iron County," the groups wrote, adding the chart projects a 361 percent increase in wild horse numbers by 2024.

In fact, in one segment of that herd management area, the Public Lands Policy Coordination Office, joined by the agriculture department and the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, are urging the land management agency to adhere to its agreement with SITLA to have no wild horses on the land.

"Wild horse numbers with the Blawn Wash herd area must be kept at 'zero' so the forage on trust lands can be fully available to SITLA grazing permitees. … Currently in 2014, all annual forage growth sold to SITLA grazing permitees on the Bucket Ranch allotment has been removed by excessive wild horses," the letter to Utah's BLM Director Juan Palma says.

The group's comments came in advance of the Monday decision by the BLM to proceed with a plan that includes wild horse gathers and the application of fertility drugs.

Kim Christy, deputy director of the school trust lands administration, gave the entity's board of trustees an update on the wild horse situation in Iron and Beaver counties at its Thursday meeting, but noted poor rangeland conditions and local frustrations are felt statewide.

Ultimately, the overpopulation of the horses combined with drought is reducing the amount of forage available for cattle on federal, state and private lands where they may wander, Christy said.

"The resource degradation issue is substantial," he said. "Horses, if not managed properly, can turn rangeland into moonscape."

The BLM, which has Washington, D.C., approval for a small gather at Bible Springs in late July and also plans to remove some wild horses causing a public health hazard on a state highway, prepared an environmental analysis to remove nearly 700 horses over a six- to 10-year period until the numbers hit the desired management level of between 80 and 170 animals.

In its own analysis, the agency said drought has reduced forage drastically. Over the past 10 years, actual livestock use within herd management areas has been substantially reduced or eliminated altogether during drought, but the agency has been limited by its own resources to conduct gathers to reduce wild horse animals. Adding to that challenge is that national holding pens are at their limits, hosting close to 33,000 animals.

Throughout southern Utah and elsewhere in the state, the drying conditions are forcing movement of the animals into "non-herd" areas, such as the SITLA land, which makes up 43 percent of the Blawn Walsh herd management area and was obtained through a land exchange with the BLM.

The BLM notes that 14 wild horses in the area succumbed to drought last summer.

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