Did Emery sheriff’s personnel harass wild horses?

Public lands • Bicknell photographer reports search-and-rescue crew on dirt bikes harassing herd; sheriff says volunteers were at McKay Flats for unrelated reasons.

Photo courtesy of Laurie Kline Individuals on ATV's and motorcycles, some with Emery County Search and Rescue shirts and trailers, were alleged by a citizen to have been involved in hazing about 80 wild horses in the McCay Flats area of the San Rafael Swell July 9. The sheriff's department said the volunteers were in the vicinity for an unrelated reason.

The Bureau of Land Management and the Emery County Sheriff have opened investigations into what a citizen reported as illegal hazing of wild horses by members of the sheriff’s search and rescue team.

The July 9 incident came to light after Laurie Kline, a Bicknell-based photographer, visited McKay Flat to photograph horses that roam the Muddy Creek Herd Management Area in the San Rafael Swell, south of Interstate 70.

She wound up photographing men on dirt bikes and an ATV apparently pursuing the horses in violation of federal law that protects free-roaming wild horses and burros. Kline’s photographs show the sheriff’s logo on the door of the truck that hauled vehicles to the site.

After Kline provided her video and still images to the BLM, the agency’s law enforcement began investigating, according to spokeswoman Lisa Reid.

“That is not a BLM-approved activity. We did not know of the activity until we were notified by Ms. Kline,” Reid said Friday.

A spokeswoman for Emery Sheriff Greg Funk confirmed on Monday that four search and rescue volunteers were in the area on July 9 after locating a lost father and his 13-year-old daughter, reported missing the day before by a ranger in Goblin Valley State Park.

Sheriff’s spokeswoman Janalee Luke said in a statement that once the missing pair — found suffering from exposure and dehydration — had been safely evacuated via ambulance, the volunteers drove to McKay Flat, unloaded their dirt bikes and began exploring the Behind the Reef trail “in an attempt to see if they could find a faster alternative route into the area where they had located the missing persons.”

That exploration, Luke said, brought them into proximity with the wild horses. “The horses just happened to be where they unloaded their motorcycles to look for the other road,” Luke said Monday in an interview.

Upon the volunteers’ return, she said, one of the men reported to the sheriff that there might be a complaint about the incident.

The sheriff then launched an internal inquiry, notified BLM officials and has placed the four non-paid volunteers on suspension pending further investigation of the matter, she said. Emery County Sheriff’s Capt. Kyle Ekker also had contacted Kline “to keep her informed and to assure her” the sheriff’s office “is taking the complaint seriously,” the statement said.

The incident comes amid heightened tensions over wild horses on Utah’s public lands. Some county officials are chronically upset with the BLM for not removing wild horses from the public range fast enough and some have even threatened to round up horses even though they are protected under federal law. Each year, BLM removes thousands of horses from the Western ranges and holds many for life in corrals.

Although plenty of ranchers are frustrated with the presence of horses on their grazing allotments, Emery County has gotten along with the BLM over horses, according to Reid. Neither Emery County officials nor ranchers who graze Muddy Creek have complained to the BLM about horses recently, she said.

According to Kline, she was photographing the horses that Sunday when she saw a truck and trailer drive up and park nearby. A second truck, the one bearing the sheriff’s logo, then arrived and five men unloaded dirt bikes and the ATV, she said. Her photographs show one man wearing a search-and-rescue tee-shirt wielding a hand-held radio transmitter.

Kline claimed she overheard one of the men say he didn’t mind if they killed a few of the horses, she wrote the next day in a hand-written statement addressed to Reid and Gus Warr, who supervises the BLM’s horse program in Utah.

“Four men commenced chasing and stampeding the eighty-three horses with foals,” Kline wrote. “The herd vanished in a cloud of dust through the flat with the ATV rider in lead pursuit. The three dirt bikes flanking the roiling dust cloud spread out to one side climbing the hill through pinon and juniper in pursuit of the frantic horses.”

Kline estimated the chase lasted at least a mile. She said she never spoke to the men before she left for a five-mile drive to find a cell-phone signal to convey what she had seen to a friend. She returned to find the men gone.

Investigations by the sheriff and the BLM are continuing.

To settle a recent lawsuit filed by Utah, the BLM has agreed to target an area in the West Desert, known as the Bible Spring complex, for wild horse gathers and give the state greater say in management of the animals. That settlement also requires BLM to remove horses from McKay Flat every other year.

According to Reid, the agency this year is focusing on Bible Spring, where 100 horses are to be removed beginning on Aug. 15.

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