Two Nevada organisations are suing federal authorities over what they say is an overpopulation of wild horses in the state.
The action against the US Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was filed in the Federal District Court of Nevada by the Nevada Association of Counties and the Nevada Farm Bureau Federation.
The plaintiffs want federal authorities to comply with the requirements of the Wild Free-Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act of 1971.
Nevada is home to the largest population of wild horses and burros in the United States, with more than 80 percent of its public lands under federal management.
The two groups says that, under the act, it is the responsibility of the federal agencies that manage public land in Nevada to maintain the balance of species and uses on public lands.
To that end, the BLM established Appropriate Management Levels (AMLs) for wild horse and burro populations and is tasked with counting animals and maintaining population levels with the aim of maintaining a thriving ecological balance on the range.
The groups say that wild horse and burro populations have far exceeded AMLs for some time, and management practices have not kept pace with population growth.
The Nevada Association of Counties, a non-partisan association representing 17 counties, says it has been concerned about the overpopulation of wild horses for a number of years.
“Most of Nevada’s counties contain wild horse Herd Management Areas that have horse populations far in excess of BLM determined AMLs.
“This situation affects counties in a number of ways: wild horse overpopulation creates serious environmental concerns for horses, wildlife, and ecology of rangelands, and creates both direct and indirect economic impacts.
“Loss of use of public lands as well as the cost of services associated with the health and safety impacts created by the overpopulation of wild horses and burros decreases tax revenues and yet increases the costs that counties must bear.”
County authorities, individually and collectively, have a commitment, as well as a legal obligation, to protect the environment and economic viability of counties as well as the health, safety, and welfare of residents, the group said.
It said the lawsuit was filed in the hope that something could be done to move federal authorities to engage stakeholders in Nevada and begin to take action to improve wild horse and burro management strategies to comply with the act.
The organisation stressed that it recognized wild horses as an iconic symbol of the landscape and heritage of Nevada. It said it supported their presence on public lands.
“However, it is imperative that horses be maintained at Appropriate Management Levels and within properly established herd management areas.”
The organisation says the court action seeks a court order requiring the Department of Interior to
promptly and fully comply with all the provisions of the act, specifically:
- Immediately conduct gathers of all excess animals on public lands in Nevada which exceed the currently established AMLs, both inside and outside of established herd management areas.
- On a continuing basis thereafter, determine the current populations of animals in Nevada at least every two months and promptly conduct gathers of excess animals.
- Cease the long-term warehousing of animals removed from excess populations of animals on public lands in Nevada and to instead promptly and without delay proceed to auction, sell and otherwise properly dispose of such animals in accordance with the act.
- Adhere to multiple use principles in carrying out their responsibilities under the Act in Nevada including, but not limited to, compliance with the laws of Nevada as they pertain to water rights.
- Cease interfering with Nevada water rights owned by third parties by preventing their owner’s access to and use of water and to cease favoring horses and burros, particularly excess animals, over other users of the lands including wildlife.
However, wild horse advocate Laura Leigh, of the non-profit group, Wild Horse Education, describes the lawsuit as retaliation.
Leigh, who travels the western rangelands monitoring wild horse roundups, said: “This suit comes on the heels of a contentious debate after a few ranchers were given grazing restrictions during the last two years of drought.
“Those valid restrictions that were given to ranchers that had overgrazed areas significantly and continued to graze during the drought were met by vehement opposition by the counties, livestock board and the state of Nevada Department of Agriculture.
“After years of being catered to by the federal government this is a ‘hit back’ for the few instances of making them actually ‘do the right thing’ for the range. Wild horses have always been the scapegoat.”
The suit’s claim that the BLM was in violation of provisions of the Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act was a “mathematical notion”, she said.
“What is so frustrating is that these mathematical notions only work on one side of an equation.
“If BLM’s monitoring is flawed then it was also flawed in determining AML, making AML an inaccurate barometer of range or herd health. If the data is flawed then it is flawed. You can’t claim accuracy in one portion to further your agenda when you base your agenda on the claim of inaccuracy.
“I agree the data is, and has been flawed. The notion that AML is a ‘truth’ is pure fiction, however.”
Leigh noted that public land ranchers grazed livestock on 155 million of the 260 million acres administered by the BLM and the Forest Service.
The industry was subsidized by US taxpayers by over $US100 million annually, she asserted.
“It is important to remember that only about 4 percent of livestock utilized in industry comes from public land.
“Wild horses and burros exist on about 12 percent of public land. Within that 12 percent of public land they are most often given less than 15 percent of the available forage.
“At a time when issues such as the sage grouse planning documents and hydraulic fracking moving onto Nevada’s public land, it is no surprise that ranchers fear a loss of income and are more protective over water rights they might be able to sell, and therefore want less restrictions on,” said Leigh. “Historically, the livestock community hits the little guy first – wild horses.”