By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
The federal government plans to remove more than two-thirds of the wild horses in a portion of Oregon's Malheur National Forest to settle a lawsuit.
Rancher Loren Stout of Dayville, Ore., initially filed a complaint against the U.S. Forest Service in 2009, claiming the agency's management of wild horses harmed threatened steelhead.
He argued that excessive numbers of horses were trampling stream banks, causing degradation to steelhead habitat that was blamed on cattle grazing. Due to environmental litigation, grazing in the Malheur National Forest was repeatedly restricted by a federal court in recent years.
According to the settlement deal, there are roughly 200 horses in the Murderers Creek wild horse territory in 2013, and the Forest Service will cut that number to 60 by 2016.
The agency has also agreed to cooperate with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to study the impacts of elk in the region, to allow for better management of the animals.
Under the deal, the Forest Service will pay $93,500 to Stout in compensation for attorneys fees. Capital Press was unable to reach an attorney representing the agency as of press time.
"My lawyers did a great job. This was an uphill son of a gun," said Stout.
However, he said the award isn't likely to cover his actual expenses and he remains dubious whether the government will actually remove enough horses to satisfy the deal's terms.
Stout said the actual number of horses in the territory is likely closer to 450.
"I'm skeptical of the Forest Service doing what they'd said they'd do," Stout said. "It gives us leverage, but you've got to have money to go after them if they don't do anything."
The settlement deal is a bittersweet ending to the litigation, as Stout is in the process of selling his ranch.
Grazing curtailments in recent years have made it difficult to raise cattle in the area, he said. Even when grazing was totally disallowed, horses caused damage to steelhead habitat.
"If you've got to rely on the Forest Service, you're done," Stout said. "They just pounded everything."
Stout said he wouldn't be surprised if the controversy over wild horses in the area is resurrected due to litigation from wild horse advocates.
Earlier this year, horse advocates tried to intervene in the lawsuit between Stout and the Forest Service in an attempt to influence the settlement, but their request was denied by the judge overseeing the case.