Part of a large herd of wild horses, on the flanks of Aspen Mountain, Sweetwater County. Wild horses on public lands are just one of many Bureau of Land Management questions that could soon be in the hands of Cheyenne attorney Karen Budd-Falen, who is said to be in the running to take the agency’s helm. (Flickr Creative Commons/Carfull)

This story was originally published by Environment & Energy News on June 22, 2015 and republished here with permissions. — Ed

Wyoming has asked a federal appeals court to order the federal government to remove wild horses from public lands in the Cowboy State.

Gov. Matt Mead (R) announced the appeal to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday, arguing the Bureau of Land Management’s failure to remove excess horses has impaired rangeland health and is threatening sage grouse and big game animals.

The appeal comes two months after a federal district court in Cheyenne rejected the state’s claim that BLM was violating the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 by allowing several herd areas in Wyoming to exceed their appropriate management levels.

“The situation has not changed,” Mead said in a statement Friday. “The BLM has still not properly managed the wild horse population in Wyoming.”

The appeal is the latest in a decades-long legal battle over management of wild horses on Western rangelands. BLM believes there are roughly twice as many horses as what the lands can sustain, posing threats to cattle and native wildlife, plants and soils.

Ranchers and hunting groups want BLM to more aggressively remove the animals, but the agency has limited funding to do so, and removals are often challenged by wild horse advocates.

Wyoming sued BLM in the district court in December, arguing the agency is obligated under the law to remove excess horses and prevent overpopulation. Mead last August sent a letter to Interior Department officials noting that horses had exceeded the appropriate management levels in the Antelope Hills, Crooks Mountain, Green Mountain, Lost Creek, Stewart Creek, Fifteenmile and Little Colorado herd management areas — a point that BLM did not dispute, according to the court.

The Wyoming Stock Growers Association filed a brief to the district court supporting the state, pointing to concerns from state biologists that excess horses were harming sage grouse breeding grounds and causing “financial and resource damage” to state lands within federal areas.

But District Judge Nancy Freudenthal sided with the federal government, saying the number of horses on public lands alone is not enough to compel BLM to remove them.

BLM argued in the case that it must first decide there are “excess animals” before animals can be removed from on the range, which is defined under the 1971 law as animals that threaten “a thriving natural ecological balance and multiple-use relationship in that area.”

“At this time, there is no discrete action required by BLM and the management of wild horses on federal land throughout Wyoming is properly left to the sound discretion of BLM without judicial entanglement,” Freudenthal wrote in her April 21 ruling. She said the court did not want to meddle in “day-to-day agency management.”

The federal government had argued Wyoming’s lawsuit was a “significant intrusion on the discretion granted to BLM to determine the best use of its limited resources.”

“The petition asks this court to become intimately involved in the massive endeavor of allocating and directing BLM’s resources throughout the entire state,” federal attorneys argued to the district court. “The Supreme Court does not endorse judicial entanglement with an agency’s lawful exercise of discretion, and has recognized that BLM possesses such discretion to manage wild horses on public lands.”

Wild horse advocates intervened in the district court case against Wyoming. They included the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, the Cloud Foundation, Return to Freedom, Friends of Animals and Protect Mustangs.

Twitter: @philipataylor | Email: ptaylor@eenews.net

Flickr Creative Commons Photo by Carfull.

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