Kristin Murphy, Deseret News Archives
Wild horses roam in the Cedar Mountain range on July 18, 2013.

SALT LAKE CITY — Rural Utah leaders do not want a Cliven Bundy-style showdown with the Bureau of Land Management so they are rustling up allies and taking their fight to Washington, D.C., and New Orleans to put control of wild horses in the hands of the states.

"We don't want this to turn out to be anything like the Cliven Bundy deal. Just because the BLM can break the law does not mean we can break the law," said Beaver County Commissioner Mark Whitney. "Two wrongs don't make a right. … We are trying to take the high road on this."

Whitney said they want to avoid an armed showdown with the agency like this past April in Nevada, where Bundy ignored court orders to remove his cattle or pay grazing fees.

With that in mind, Beaver and Iron counties have backed off their threats to round up excess wild horses from the southern Utah range officials assert has been denuded of vegetation. Instead, Whitney and Iron County Commissioner Dave Miller floated and got unanimous approval of a resolution that takes their fight to the National Association of Counties meeting later this month in New Orleans.

Members of the Utah Association of Counties endorsed a resolution that calls for the management of wild horse and burro populations be turned over to the states. That same resolution will come up for possible action at the national level.

"The BLM does not have the right or the setup to be in wild horse management," Whitney said. "Those animals need to be turned over to be managed by the state Division of Wildlife Resources just like any other animal — and that includes managing them to appropriate management levels and for disposal."

A lawsuit filed by the Western Rangeland Conservation Association contends there are more than 350 horses in eight distinct herd areas above what the BLM says is "appropriate" for the region.

The BLM Utah's numbers show there are an estimated 3,245 wild horses and burros in the state when management levels call for 1,956. Strapped resources, the rate of reproduction and lukewarm adoption rates have left state holding pens also bulging, mirroring a national situation with overflowing holding corrals.

Mark Ward, senior policy analyst and counsel with the Utah Association of Counties, said something simply has to give.

"It is a hopeless situation the way the feds are managing it," Ward said. "They do not have room to store them, they are dying of overpopulation, and there is no end in sight to the explosive growth. They have no natural predators. The only way to manage them is through auction and euthanasia."

Wild horse advocates insist the animal has been made the "scapegoat" for range mismanagement and overgrazing by cattle — and the numbers are stacked unfairly against wild horses and burros.

The counties and ranchers contend they have made or are making dramatic reductions in the number of livestock allowed on public ranges because the wild horse populations aren't being controlled.

"The number of cows on the range are strictly managed and strictly curtailed from year to year and from season to season," Ward said. "The BLM conservation officer is in constant contact and checking conditions with each permittee, but you have none of that with the horse management."

Both Ward and Whitney said the hope is to get legislation passed that would remove congressional oversight of wild horse and burro management in the United States. Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, is planning to unveil legislation to that effect next week.

In New Orleans, Whitney said he and Garfield County Commissioner Leland Pollock plan to introduce joint resolutions in separate committees on agriculture and public lands regarding the wild horse issue.

"We feel like if we are working through Stewart's office and with the BLM in Washington, D.C., we can get this resolved without a lot of tension involved," Whitney said.

Ward added another goal is to educate the public about the widespread nature of the Western states' complaints over the BLM's management of wild horses.

"I was at a meeting in May in Anchorage where this committee was formed, and it was the hot (topic)," he said. "If anybody thinks this is a Utah-driven issue, we are just jumping on the train, trying to keep up the best we can. It is West-wide, and there is anger and frustration from all over the West."

The BLM is planning an emergency gather in the Blawn Wash area in late July and is working through an environmental analysis on a plan to remove 700 wild horses over six to 10 years from Iron and Beaver counties.

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