SALT LAKE CITY — National wild horse advocacy organizations are criticizing Utah Gov. Gary Herbert for his comments that the animals' populations need to be managed more effectively, including "taking down" some of them for the benefit of cattle grazing.
The American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign and its coalition partner, the Cloud Foundation, penned a letter to Herbert on Monday stemming from comments he made to the media after the taping of his monthly KUED news conference last week.
“America’s wild horses and burros are the heritage of all Americans, and Americans overwhelming support maintaining and protecting these animals on our public lands," the letter reads. "They must be managed in the interest of all Americans, not the few who view mustangs as competition for cheap, taxpayer-subsidized grazing on our public lands. "
The groups railed on Herbert for exaggerating the number of wild horses in Utah, accusing him of "scapegoating wild horses for range damage to the public rangelands caused by massive livestock grazing."
Herbert's comments on wild horse management came up with reporters in the context of Nevada cattle rancher Cliven Bundy's fight with the federal government over his failure to pay grazing fees and because of recent controversy over wild horse populations in Beaver and Iron counties.
On Tuesday, the governor's office reiterated Herbert's frustration on wild horse management in response to the letter by advocacy organizations.
"Gov. Herbert recognizes that the wild horses in Utah’s West Desert are an iconic part of the western heritage," said spokesman Marty Carpenter. "Likewise, cattle, sheep and wildlife, such as elk and deer, deserve a place on our diverse desert landscape. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is responsible for maintaining the herd sizes for wild horses. Gov. Herbert has urged the BLM to maintain the herds at the numbers required in BLM plans."
But because those numbers are significantly higher than what the BLM acknowledges is an appropriate number, the governor said wild horse management is yet another area where the state could do a better job than the federal government when it comes to public lands issues.
"The horse issue in Utah is a good example of where the federal government comes in and says to the cattle rancher, 'You've got to cut back on your animal units. You've got cut your herds back by 25 percent. Why? Because we are in a drought situation,'" Herbert said.
Cattle ranchers are frustrated, he added, because wild horses are "breeding like rabbits," and if the government addressed that, there would be more room for cows.
"Our proposal is to let us take over some of the responsibilities. You know there is no other animal that the federal government manages that is not on an endangered species list other than these wild horses, and they don't know what to do with them."
When asked how Utah would approach the problem differently from the BLM, Herbert replied: "We need to change legislation, and we'd find a way to manage the population, which would also mean taking down some of the horses."
The groups, citing BLM statistics, say the number of wild horses on public lands "pales in comparison" to cattle, pointing out that livestock grazing happens on 22 million acres of BLM land in Utah, while wild horses are restricted to 2.1 million acres.
While hundreds of thousands of cattle graze on BLM lands in Utah, the coalition stressed that there are fewer than 3,500 wild horses and burros in the state.
The actual acreage designated for wild horse management in Utah and elsewhere in the West is a limit that is congressionally dictated by the Wild Horse and Burros Act of 1971 and is not result of any land use decision by the BLM.
"After reviewing the facts contained in this letter," the groups said, "we are hopeful that you will acknowledge the disparity of resources allocated to private livestock versus wild horses on federal land in your state, and specify that all citizens, including those in Utah, must respect federal laws that mandates the protection of wild horses and burros."
Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche