The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has backed off its plan to castrate hundreds of wild stallions in southwestern Wyoming, lawyers told a federal judge Tuesday.
The agency had planned to round up nearly 900 wild horses from the White Mountain/Little Colorado herd management areas between Rock Springs and La Barge starting this month.
The BLM planned to castrate all the stallions it could capture and release 177 of them back to the range as geldings. It was going to put the rest of the captured horses up for adoption or sale, or send them to long-term holding sites.
The agency has faced environmental challenges around the West as it seeks to reduce growing wild horse herds it says are damaging rangelands.
Environmentalists last week filed a federal lawsuit in Washington, D.C., seeking to block the agency's Wyoming roundup. The groups said the BLM's plan _ the first time it had proposed to geld and release wild stallions _ would violate federal laws and leave the herds unable to survive.
"By galloping ahead with this destructive plan, the BLM ignored over 10,000 public comments and the opinion of experts who warned of the irreparable harm that would be inflicted on these wild horse populations," said Suzanne Roy, spokeswoman for the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, one of the groups that brought the lawsuit. The Western Watersheds Project and individual environmentalists in Wyoming and Colorado also joined in filing the suit.
Katherine Meyer, lawyer for the environmental groups in Washington, said Tuesday she's happy the BLM decided to withdraw its decision. "We thought it was illegal, which is why we acted quickly to challenge it," she said.
Federal lawyers informed Judge Amy Berman Jackson during a scheduling conference Tuesday of their decision to abandon the castration plan.
Tom Gorey, spokesman for the BLM in Washington, issued a brief statement saying his agency intends to issue a new plan by Friday. Agency officials in Wyoming declined to comment.
The state of Wyoming last week intervened in the lawsuit to support the BLM's position that it needs to reduce the number of wild horses in the state. Gov. Matt Mead has said the federal agency needs to abide by its longstanding legal agreement with the state, called a consent decree, to keep wild horse populations in check to protect rangelands.
James Kaste, lawyer with the Wyoming Attorney General's Office, said the BLM intends to push the start of the roundup back from Aug. 17 to Sept. 1.
Although the BLM no longer plans to geld the stallions and release some of them back to the range, Kaste said the agency still plans to remove the same number of horses from the range. He said the federal agency intends to treat some of the mares it captures with a birth-control drug before releasing them.
"The important point that the environmental attorneys don't mention is that we're going to have the gathers (roundups), unless they file basically a new lawsuit, and move for a preliminary injunction, and convince the judge that it's warranted," Kaste said.
Meanwhile, an association of private livestock operators who own land in some of the same disputed areas filed a federal lawsuit of its own last week in Wyoming.
The lawsuit, filed by the Rock Springs Grazing Association, seeks to force the federal government to remove all wild horses from private lands in an area of roughly 2 million acres. The suit covers private lands in so-called "checkerboard" area, a swath of mixed federal and private land that runs along the old railroad route across the southern Wyoming.
Grazing association president John Hay said the White Mountain area, where the BLM roundup is planned, is almost entirely within the area covered by his group's lawsuit and said wild horses from the Little Colorado herd also enter the area.
"They have a very serious effect in terms of forage," Hay said Tuesday of wild horses. "There are a number of competing entities out there: livestock, wildlife and of course, horses. As the horse population grows, it causes great difficulty in terms of the other particular uses."