By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
Federal biologists have concluded that the management of wild horses in a portion of Oregon's Malheur National Forest doesn't jeopardize threatened steelhead.
However, the rancher who sued the government to study the horses' environmental impact said the study minimizes their detrimental effects on fish.
Rancher Loren Stout of Dayville, Ore. he believes the horses are causing damage to stream banks that is blamed on his cattle, preventing them from being turned out to graze.
The recent biological opinion downplays the harm that horses have had on steelhead habitat to justify the government's management plan, he said. "What they're saying is it's different if it's a horse. It's the worst cover-up I've seen."
Wild horses may cause injury to individual fish, but this harm does not imperil their continued existence, according to a biological opinion recently issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service.
To mitigate the impact on steelhead habitat, the U.S. Forest Service will be expected to remove horses from the Murderers Creek wild horse territory to maintain the population at 50-140 animals.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is in charge of delivering removed horses to its holding facilities as well as the adoption process.
The federal government estimates that horse populations have hovered between 90 and 460 animals in the past decade, with the current number standing at 57 after roughly 200 horses were removed in late 2012 and early 2013.
Stout said there's actually many more horses left in the territory, which will be verified by more recent aerial surveys of the area.
"There could be 20 horses out there and we're not going to pass standards" that would open the area to grazing, he said.