The Western Resources Legal Center (WRLC) on behalf of the California Cattlemen’s Association, California Farm Bureau Federation, Public Lands Council, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, Modoc County, and ranchers William Flournoy, Carolyn and James Peter Carey, and Mike Byrne won a significant victory in Federal court in Washington D.C. this week involving wild horses competing with livestock on the Modoc National Forest in northern California. The court soundly rejected the wild horse activists’ attempt to increase the acres dedicated primarily to wild horses, including private lands, and to leverage wild horse overpopulation to increase forage allocated to wild horses to the detriment of livestock.
In 2014, the wild horse population in the Devils Garden wild horse territory on the Modoc was estimated at being 400-700% overpopulated. Plaintiffs challenged a long delayed Forest Service management plan that revised horse population management levels and corrected the boundaries of the horses’ territory that incorrectly included private property and other inappropriate Forest Service land. WRLC argued that the revised horse population management levels were far more than enough to provide a “thriving natural ecological balance,” under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971.
“While the activists’ goal was to leverage the Wild Horse Act to increase wild horse use and reduce domestic livestock use,” said Dustin Van Liew, Public Lands Council executive director, “The court maintained that the wild horse management decision by the Forest Service is not a suitable vehicle to dispute livestock grazing permits.”
The opinion stated, “Plaintiffs may disagree with the Forest Service’s decision to adjust the [horse population] range instead of modifying grazing permits and livestock management plans,” but the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) “is not a suitable vehicle for airing grievances about the substantive polices adopted by an agency, as NEPA was not intended to resolve fundamental policy disputes.”
The court affirmed the Forest Service’s horse levels and had no heartburn about the ratios of cows to horses, “So the fact that there are private cattle and sheep grazing in the Devil’s Garden WHT consuming much more forage than the relatively small number of wild horses, is not on its own incompatible with the Act.”
The court also found no improper conduct involving a cost share agreement between the Forest Service and the local Farm Bureau to prepare the wild horse management plan, rejecting the allegation that the agreement biased the wild horse plan in favor of livestock producers. The Forest Service had long delayed the wild horse management plan which was needed to support removal of excess horses.
Finally, the court ruled that the wild horse territory cannot be extended beyond the area occupied by the horses in 1971, when the Act was passed.