Federal authorities broke the law when they removed wild horses from Wyoming’s checkerboard region in 2014, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday.
Horse advocates had argued the Bureau of Land Management illegally treated the entire checkerboard area — made up of alternating blocks of public and private land — as private.
The American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign and other groups sued to block a roundup on the land two years ago, but a U.S. District Court in Wyoming rejected their claims. The 10th Circuit ruling overturns that decision and will presumably block an identical roundup scheduled to begin Tuesday in the checkerboard east of Rock Springs.
The groups filed a separate suit earlier this month to block Tuesday’s roundup.
Bill Eubanks, an attorney representing the advocates, said Friday’s ruling validated the groups’ claim that the BLM needed to follow the procedure for removing horses from public lands if it wanted to take the animals out of the checkerboard.
“This is what we wanted and then some,” Eubanks said. “Game over.”
The BLM did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The 10th Circuit released a short order on Friday declaring the checkerboard roundup to be in violation of the Wild Horses and Burros Act and The Federal Land Policy and Management Act.
The court said it would explain its reasoning in a future opinion.
Eubanks said he was told that the court released its brief decision so that the District Court could take its ruling into account when deciding whether to block this year’s horse roundup in the checkerboard.
Given the similarity of the 2014 roundup and this month’s planned gather, Eubanks said he expected to the District Court to block the upcoming roundup.
The cases center on three wild horse populations in south-central Wyoming. The Rock Springs Grazing Association requested the BLM remove the horses from the group’s land in the area.
The grazing association and BLM reached a 2013 agreement in which the land management agency agreed to periodically remove wild horses from the entire checkerboard in order to keep them off private grazing land.
Horse advocates claimed the consent decree was illegal because it allowed the agency to remove horses from public lands in the checkerboard as if they were private. The Wild Horses Act mandates strict procedures for the agency to remove horses from public lands compared to a much simpler process for removing the animals from private land.
But the BLM argued, and a district court agreed, that because the checkerboard was made up of alternating square miles of unfenced public and private land it was impossible to keep the horses off private land without taking removing them from the public checkerboard land as well.
The 10th Circuit decision reversed the District Court opinion.
Eubanks said that the case has wider resonance because it sought to determine whether a federal agency could treat public lands as private as a matter of expediency.
To read the press release from Return to Freedom and its fellow plaintiffs, please click here.