Forest Service asked to assess if wild horse management hurts steelhead
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
The U.S. Forest Service's approval of a plan for managing wild horses in an Oregon national forest violated the Endangered Species Act, according to a federal judge.
The agency adopted the plan without studying potential negative effects on threatened steelhead, as required by ESA, U.S. District Judge Ancer Haggerty said on March 10.
Officials from the Forest Service must now prepare a "biological assessment" to determine if its wild horse management plan for the Malheur National Forest is likely to adversely affect the steelhead.
The agency must also consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service on potential effects, but the plan will remain in place while those actions are underway.
The controversy over the Forest Service's wild horse plan directly relates to litigation over cattle grazing in the Malheur National Forest.
Environmental groups have challenged grazing permits that allow ranchers to run cattle on allotments in the national forest.
That litigation has resulted in grazing prohibitions and curtailments due to stream bank disturbances that are considered hazardous to steelhead habitat.
However, Loren and Piper Stout of Dayville, Ore., claim the banks on their allotment were disturbed by wild horses.
Under the Forest Service's 2007 plan for the 180,000-acre area -- the Murderer's Creek Wild Horse Territory -- the agency decided to maintain the horse population at 50 to 140 animals.
A survey of horses the prior year found the population topped 400 horses.
The Stouts filed a legal complaint against the agency in 2009, alleging the agency had limited grazing activities but allowed wild horses to become overpopulated.
"It is imperative that the federal agencies at issue here consider ungulates (hoofed mammals) other than livestock that graze in the same space as livestock, but for the whole year round, and their impacts on listed fish species," the ranchers said in a court document.
The Forest Service claimed the Stouts lacked legal standing to challenge the wild horse management plan.
The plan isn't a final agency action that can be reviewed by a court, and even if it was, any potential revisions couldn't redress the injury suffered by ranchers, according to the agency.
Haggerty disagreed, ruling that the plan could be changed to the benefit of ranchers by imposing a "more aggressive gathering schedule" of wild horses, for example.
The plan also constitutes a final agency action because "it sets specific management protocols for wild horses, and describes when, why, and in what order of priority any excess horses shall be removed from the territory," he said.