The Bureau of Land Management this past week filed a motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought against it in Nevada federal court over its failure to properly manage wild horses, as required by law, and letting the mustang population explode far beyond what the range is capable of handling.
The suit from the Nevada Association of Counties, the Nevada Farm Bureau Federation and others asks the court to issue an injunction or writ requiring federal agencies to follow the wild horse and burro law, because its current failure to do so is starving the very animals the law was intended to protect, damaging range land used for cattle grazing and taking private water rights.
“Free-roaming horse and burro herds in Nevada are frequently observed to be in malnourished condition, with the ribs and skeletal features of individual animals woefully on view and other signs of ill-health readily observable,” the suit says.
The BLM argues the suit is “nonjusticiable” because it fails to identify a single “final action” by the agency that caused damage, but rather asks the court to micromanage the BLM’s thousands of daily decisions about the management of feral horses — actually an invasive species with no natural predators and insatiable appetites.
But perhaps the court needs to play the role of Solomon and split this baby, because, as the BLM motion notes, the law clearly requires the BLM to maintain the feral horse population and destroy unadoptable excess wild horses, but the congressional budget specifically denies any funding for doing so.
The Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971 says, “The Secretary (of Interior) shall cause additional excess wild free roaming horses and burros for which an adoption demand by qualified individuals does not exist to be destroyed in the most humane and cost efficient manner possible.”
But this year’s budget, just as every budget since 2009, states, “Appropriations herein made shall not be available for the destruction of healthy, unadopted, wild horses and burros in the care of the Bureau or its contractors or for the sale of wild horses and burros that results in their destruction for processing into commercial products.”
“Specifically, Congress has decreased funding available to BLM for horse management – thereby limiting BLM’s capacity to remove excess horses – even as it has forbidden BLM from humanely destroying excess horses stored in BLM’s long-term holding faculties (facilities?),” the motion to dismiss complains. “Because BLM is obligated to care for these horses, funds available for range-management are even more limited than is readily apparent, and populations of wild horses have grown accordingly. Both federal and independent observers have noted that this population growth may strain resources located or dependant on public lands, including those in Nevada.”
The motion to dismiss suggests that the proper course for the plaintiffs is not through the courts “but through petitions to Congress and the Executive.” A fat lot of good it does to ask Harry Reid’s Congress to do anything. It is inert, inept and too often self-contradictory.
There are nearly 50,000 feral horses and burros on the open range in the West, nearly 50 percent more than the range can handle. About half those are in Nevada. Off the range, there are another 48,000 animals in either short-term corrals or long-term pastures, which the taxpayers are feeding for their average 25-year life span.
More than 60 percent of the BLM’s $70 million annual budget for managing wild horses and burros is consumed by warehousing the animals in corrals, one of the largest of which is in Palomino Valley near Reno.
The motion to dismiss also challenges any Fifth Amendment “takings” claims due to the wild horses drinking privately owned water. “Of the courts that have considered whether damage to private property by protected wildlife constitutes a ‘taking,’ a clear majority have held that it does not and that the government thus does not owe compensation,” the BLM says.
There is clearly damage being done to Nevada rangeland and ranchers. They have a right to petition for redress of grievances, but to whom?
Oddly enough there are many news stories now about state and federal agencies battling an invasive species with no natural predators and insatiable appetites that is devastating businesses and recreational use of the Great Lakes. But there is no Wild and Free-Roaming Asian Carp Act.
This is just another example of why the control of federal lands must be in the hands of those who are closest to it and are most affected by its mismanagement.
Thomas Mitchell is a longtime Nevada newspaper columnist. You may share your views with him by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Read additional musings on his blog at http://4thst8.wordpress.com/.