The Utah Wildlife Board on Thursday threw its support behind efforts to "put the heat on" the federal Bureau of Land Management to quickly to address an overpopulation of wild horses in the state.
During a meeting in Salt Lake City, the board responded to requests from several county commissions in southern Utah. The counties are calling on the BLM to adhere to its own mandate to maintain the number of wild horses at a level that allows various uses of the range without harming its "fragile arid ecosystem."
The board had earlier considered a proposal by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) to allow 365 cow elk hunting permits on the Southwest Desert hunting unit, and instead boosted the number to 425 permits. The hunting unit is located in the western part of Beaver, Iron and Millard counties, where the horses compete with wildlife for food and water.
There were 150 cow elk hunting tags on the unit in 2013.
"It’s a sad situation. As we sit here and vote on these elk tags, I can’t help but think that nothing we do here is really going to affect habitat down there," said board member John Bair, who recently spent time on the unit and proposed the extra 60 anterless elk tags.
"It is a sad thing to see something as neat as a wild horse get to the level where they are literally eating themselves out of house and home," he said.
DWR director Greg Sheehan said his agency thought the board might want to send a letter to the federal government regarding the horses, and had his staff provide a draft. After discussing minor alterations, the board voted to send the letter to Utah BLM director Juan Palma and Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell.
Livestock and hunting group representatives encouraged the wildlife board to send the letter before the vote.
"We join with our livestock grower friends and others who have spoken today [saying] that wildlife is involved and we are concerned," said Bill Christensen, regional director for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
The overpopulation of horses is "very similar to what happened with wolves," he said. "We have population objectives and somehow the federal government allows numbers to get far out of hand. I ask the wildlife board to join with the governor and offer a letter to make your points known and put pressure on the BLM."
Christensen said a letter sent from foundation to the Wild Horses and Burro Advisory Board last fall encouraged the BLM "to use every available tool including sterilization and euthanasia to reduce the feral horse and burro numbers."
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