By Trevor Graff, Star-Tribune
The Bureau of Land Management is removing between 800 and 900 wild horses from the checkerboard lands in the Great Divide Basin and the Adobe Town and Salt Wells Creek herd management areas in south central Wyoming.
The BLM’s Rock Springs field office is responding to requests from private landowners in the checkerboard area that follows the path of the transcontinental railroad in southern Wyoming.
In 1862, Congress gave every other section of land within 20 miles of the railroad to Union Pacific. The result today is a confusing cross-section of largely unfenced public and private grazing lands on which wild horses travel freely.
The Rock Springs Grazing Association sued for the removal of the horses from private checkerboard lands in a 2013 case in the U.S. District Court for the District of Wyoming. The court ruled in favor of private landowners and allowed for the horses' removal from checkerboard lands.
“This gather is a compliance action for the 2013 consent decree that was a result of that case,” said Kimberlee Foster, Rock Springs BLM field manager. “We have to remove all horses from checkerboard lands. That is what we’re complying with.”
The grazing association controls more than 731,700 acres in the checkerboard region of southern Wyoming. Association representatives declined comment for this story.
At a recent news conference, Gov. Matt Mead said Wyoming is considering legal action to force the BLM to control populations in the herd management areas.
He said that the wild horse populations in those areas are too high and that the horses are putting too much pressure on livestock and sage grouse in the area.
“We are right now looking at legal action to force them to get those numbers under control because when you have wild horses competing with livestock, when you have wild horses competing for range ground that impacts sage grouse, you have keen interest by the state of Wyoming,” Mead said. “So it’s appropriate they have that roundup. But we think they need to do more in individual herd management areas than they have been doing.”
Private landowners voiced their concerns with the BLM after the number of wild horses on private lands grew. They said the populations are moving freely from public to private lands, degrading the range’s ability to sustain livestock.
“For the most part, it’s an unfenced area,” Foster said. “That makes management of the wild horse herd in particular very challenging.”
Wild horse advocates say the move ignores the BLM’s role in protecting the horses from grazing.
Suzanne Roy, director of American Wild Horse Preservation, a national wild horse advocacy group, said the action will destroy a publicly cherished herd of mustangs in Wyoming.
“The BLM is legally mandated to protect and preserve wild horses, while livestock grazing occurs on our public lands entirely at the discretion of the government,” Roy said. “What’s happening in Wyoming is a perversion of both the law and the public trust.”
The roundup is scheduled to begin on Aug. 20. After the horses are gathered, they will enter the wild horse and burro adoption program. Those horses deemed not immediately suitable for adoption will be transported to holding facilities throughout the U.S. for longer-term care.
The horses are examined by a veterinarian and vaccinated before entering the program. The process can take up to three months, with adoption following up to 120 days after the horses enter the program.
Jay D’Ewart, a wild horse and burro specialist for the BLM, said the gather isn’t the typical herd management action. Rather than gather horses to administer birth control drugs or adjust populations, the BLM is gathering the horses for removal from the area.