CHEYENNE, Wyo. — A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday against Wyoming officials who sought to require the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to round up wild horses from overpopulated herds, a decision praised by horse advocates as potentially precedent-setting for managing the animals across the West.
The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver upheld a ruling last year that the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act doesn’t mandate roundup of overpopulated wild horses.
Wild horse advocacy groups including the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign hailed the latest decision. The groups’ attorney, Bill Eubanks, said the ruling could affect similar federal cases originating in Utah and Nevada.
“This is, in our view, pretty important,” Eubanks said. “There are two other pending cases in the American West right now that raise exactly the same legal issue.”
The appeals court found that Wyoming’s wild horses aren’t necessarily overpopulated because the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act doesn’t clearly define at what point they would be, Eubanks said.
Even so, Eubanks said, the Bureau of Land Management has other options besides roundups to protect rangeland health, including giving them fertility-control drugs and reducing cattle grazing.
Wild horse numbers exceed federal population goals in several areas across the West. The animals compete with cattle and other livestock for forage, especially around watering holes where animals of every sort congregate, ranchers say.
Each year, the Bureau of Land Management rounds up thousands in a never-ending attempt to control their numbers. The agency adopts many out to the public and sends others to live out their days on sanctuaries.
Wild horse advocates object to roundups as cruel and unnecessary.
Wyoming filed its lawsuit against the Interior Department and Bureau of Land Management in 2014, saying too many wild horses can damage rangelands and that federal law requires land managers to curtail their numbers.
The wild horse groups and federal government didn’t dispute Wyoming’s claim that wild horse numbers topped the Bureau of Land Management’s population objectives in seven of the 16 federal wild-horse management areas in the state.
As of March, wild horse numbers had exceeded population objectives in 15 of the 16 areas, Gov. Matt Mead said in a statement. “Wyoming wildlife, including wild horses, are treasured assets. Mismanagement adversely affects all species and the rangelands necessary for their health and survival,” Mead said.
Mead said he was disappointed by the ruling and had asked Wyoming Attorney General Peter Michael to review the state’s options.
Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman Kristen Lenhardt declined to comment on the ruling, citing agency policy not to discuss litigation. The Bureau of Land Management will continue to manage Wyoming’s wild horses for the health of both the horses and rangelands, she said in statement.