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Coalition sues BLM over Wyoming wild horse management as agency plans summer roundups in the West

Courtesy of the BLM.

News brief: 

Several environmental and wild horse advocacy groups are suing the federal government over a wild horse management plan in Wyoming. The controversy comes as more roundups are being scheduled this year across the Mountain West.

The Bureau of Land Management has proposed reducing the wild horse population across some 2.8 million acres in southern Wyoming from between 1,481 and 2,065 animals to between 464 and 836 – a reduction of roughly 60 percent. The agency has removed more than 3,500 from the area already over the past few years, in part to reduce conflicts with livestock and meet a legal agreement with the Rock Springs Grazing Association.

A group of wild horse advocates, conservationists and academics argue that these plans are cruel, unnecessary and illegal. Erik Molvar, executive director of the Western Watersheds Project, said the populations in the area aren’t damaging the local ecosystem and are a tourism driver for Wyoming’s Red Desert region.

“The agency's desire to drive down the populations is out of step with the legal requirements,” he said. “They're supposed to be managing wild horses in order to meet these ecological thresholds, not just because of some political preference by some profit-seeking interest group.”

Molvar said entire sections of the Red Desert will be devoid of wild horse populations as a result of these roundups.

Much of the issue stems from the checkerboard pattern of land ownership that exists in this part of Wyoming – where private and public parcels are intermingled with each other – with ranchers permitted to graze some of the same federal lands that wild horses roam. Livestock groups have sued in the past over herd levels in the Rock Springs area, but Molvar believes wild horses at their current numbers have a place in the Red Desert.

“It is really strange for the Bureau of Land Management to go about radically changing the wild horse policy in this area that's already such an ecological gemstone,” he said.

Wild horse management in the West remains controversial. The BLM is also planning gathers this year in Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Nevada and Montana. The agency estimates that there are about 83,000 wild horses and burros on its lands – about three times what it says is sustainable for the land and the herds. Recent roundups and birth control measures have West-wide population numbers beginning to dip.

After horses are rounded up, they’re usually offered up in sale or adoption programs. Colorado lawmakers recently passed a bill to establish programs to benefit the species and better support fostering.

Note 5/22: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that more wild horse gathers could begin "as soon as this fall" in the Red Desert region. According to the BLM, there are no approved environmental reviews for gathers at that time in the Rock Springs Field Office. The line has therefore been deleted.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Will Walkey is currently a reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. Through 2023, Will was WPR's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. He first arrived in Wyoming in 2020, where he covered Teton County for KHOL 89.1 FM in Jackson. His work has aired on NPR and numerous member stations throughout the Rockies, and his story on elk feedgrounds in Western Wyoming won a regional Murrow award in 2021.
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