The state of Utah is asking a federal judge to force the Bureau of Land Management to remove wild horses from state-trust lands, particularly from a big tract in Iron and Beaver counties.
In a lawsuit filed Tuesday in Salt Lake City's U.S. District Court, the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration alleges years of failed management has led to population explosions of the protected animals, even though BLM wranglers scoured the Blawn Wash area last summer, removing every horse they encountered.
BLM's "failure has resulted in wild horse populations, which have and continue to severely damage the private rangeland resources of [Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration]," state lands managers argue.
"SITLA has provided the BLM with notice of the presence of and damage from wild horses on these 'school section lands' but wild horses and their depredation of rangeland resources on these lands continue unabated."
Meanwhile, state lawmakers emphasized their unhappiness with the situation, introducing a resolution before the Utah Senate that echoes the allegations in the SITLA suit.
BLM officials declined to comment on the suit, but they said Blawn Wash has been the subject of numerous horse gathers back to 2000, around the time SITLA acquired a 26,000-acre block in a large west desert land swap.
BLM removed 154 horses in 2001, another 112 in 2005, 139 in 2009 and 143 last summer after Iron and Beaver county officials threatened to round up horses if the federal government wouldn't act, according to Gus War, who leads Utah BLM's wild horse program.
In all, 550 horses have been pulled from Blawn Wash, many winding up in permanent captivity at enormous public expense.
"BLM has not been ignoring the issue," War said. "Unfortunately, when it's an unfenced parcel, the horses move there from adjacent BLM land almost immediately."
BLM's next priority in Utah targets Iron County's Bible Spring complex, where federal land managers plan a 10-year program to reduce horse numbers in federal herd management areas.
"We have that ready to go, but we are competing with the other states who also want to remove horses," War said.
Wild horse populations have long topped Utah's list of complaints about federal agencies' management of public lands.
Horse advocates, on the other hand, accuse BLM of caving to grazing interests nearly every time it approves a roundup. They argue overgrazing by subsidized stockmen, not horses, are to blame for poor range conditions.
On Thursday a Senate committee will hear a resolution calling on the federal government to transfer the management of "feral" horses and burros to the state and urging the governor to draft a management plan.
"Excessive feral horse and burro populations in Utah are damaging range and water resources, consuming forage allocated to livestock and wildlife, abridging multiple-use principles applicable to public lands, and otherwise impairing the natural ecological balance on impacted lands," states SJR7, sponsored by Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City.
Last July, the state informed BLM that wild horses were present on more than 300,000 acres of trust land within federal horse management areas administered by BLM's Cedar City, Price and Fillmore field offices. Utah land managers demanded their removal, the lawsuit states, but BLM allegedly did not respond.
The SITLA suit alleges that wild horses and burros roam onto its checkerboard sections, consuming forage that should be available to the ranchers who pay a premium to graze livestock.
"This ongoing damage results in [less forage] available for permitting and a loss of revenue to the trust beneficiaries [primarily schools]," state attorneys argue.
Later this month, BLM plans to remove 100 horses that converge most nights along a remote stretch of State Route 21 in western Millard County.
"The practical reality is those horses double every three to four years," said Kim Christy, SITLA's deputy director. "BLM did step up last summer and removed 140 head, but they were by no means eradicated. When this activity has occurred, it becomes a vacuum for horses."