By David Bailey
October 26, 2016
(Reuters) - A 2014 U.S. Bureau of Land Management roundup of more than 1,200 wild horses from a Wyoming region in which public and private lands are intermingled violated land management and horse protection laws, a federal appeals court has ruled.
The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled for conservation groups challenging the roundup, reversing the federal district court judge who ruled in March 2015 that BLM had authority to round up the horses from both public and private lands in the 2 million-acre Wyoming Checkerboard region.
Ranchers who want the horses removed and conservation groups that want to preserve them have wrestled for decades over wild horse herds that roam the region along with livestock.
The Rock Springs Grazing Association, which manages Checkerboard lands and backs the BLM roundups, has said wild horse populations adversely affect range resources and wildlife and it is infeasible to remove horses only from private lands in the Checkerboard.
The American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, Cloud Foundation and Return to Freedom argued BLM ignored its duties by authorizing the roundup on both public and private lands.
Released on Monday, the written opinion expanded on an Oct. 14 ruling by the 10th Circuit finding the roundup violated the U.S. Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act and Federal Land Policy and Management Act.
BLM argued it exercised reasonable discretion in treating all of the Checkerboard as private land in the 2014 roundup. The agency said the Wild Horse Act was silent on how to address areas where public and private lands are so intertwined it is impossible to manage the wild horse population separately.
Writing for the panel, Judge Mary Beck Briscoe acknowledged BLM has a hard task overseeing horses in the area where public and private lands alternate in small, fenceless parcels.
"But these very practical realities do not provide BLM with the authority to construe the act in a manner contrary to its plain and unambiguous terms," Briscoe wrote.
The panel said the Wild Horse Act has no ambiguity in defining public and private lands, addressing BLM management of horses on each separately. The agency is to assess and determine whether to remove horses from public lands based on herd populations, while horses on private lands are to be removed at the property owner's request.
Briscoe noted BLM admitted the geographic and ownership features of the Checkerboard itself render roundup activities ineffective to some degree.
BLM is reviewing the written decision to determine its next steps and has canceled a planned 2016 roundup in the area, said Kimberlee Foster, a field manager for BLM Wyoming.
The agency is working on a long-term resource management plan revision to resolve Checkerboard issues and saw the 2014 and 2016 roundups as interim measures, Foster said. A draft of the revision could be released in summer 2017.
William Eubanks, who represents the conservation groups, said the decision makes clear "BLM may never treat public land as private land under the federal laws that apply to public lands and federally protected wild horses found on those lands."
The unanimous panel included Judge Scott Matheson and Judge Monroe McKay.
The case is American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign v. Sally Jewell, 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 15-8033.
For the petitioners-appellants: William Eubanks and Katherine Meyer of Meyer Glitzenstein & Eubanks
For the respondents-appellees: Thekla Hansen-Young, Andrew Mergen, Mark Haag, Coby Howell and Jason Hill of the U.S. Justice Department's Environment & Natural Resources Division
For intervenor respondent appellees: Constance Brooks, of C. E. Brooks & Associates for the Rock Springs Grazing Association; and Erik Petersen of the Wyoming Attorney General's Office