A federal judge will require further evidence before deciding whether federal management of wild horses unlawfully harmed threatened steelhead in Oregon's Malheur National Forest.

Rancher Loren Stout of Dayville, Ore., contends that the U.S. Forest Service has violated the Endangered Species Act by allowing too many wild horses to "take" the federally protected fish by harming its habitat.

He alleges the horses cause damage to streams, resulting in grazing curtailments in the area.

U.S. District Judge Ancer Haggerty recently heard oral arguments in the case in Portland and has decided that there "are legitimate and material disputes" over the methods of assessing habitat damage.

"These disputes cannot be resolved on summary judgment, and require the benefit of live testimony and exhibits during trial," said Haggerty in a ruling April 24.

The percentage of a stream bank altered by hooves, known as bank alteration, is used to gauge damage to habitat.

Caroline Lobdell, an attorney for Stout, said her client believes that standard should apply equally to horses as well as cattle.

"We don't think there ought to be a double standard," she said.

In the same ruling, Haggerty rejected Stout's claims that the Forest Service's policies violate laws governing the management of wild horses and forests.

The agency acted within its discretion by setting the appropriate management level within the Murderers Creek allotment of the national forest at 100 head, the judge said.

The Forest Service didn't act unlawfully by allowing the herd to exceed that level, given the agency's budgetary constraints and the cost of horse gatherings, he said.

There are currently an estimated 200 horses on the allotment, down from about 400 six years ago.

Last year, Stout won a victory in the case when the judge ordered the agency to consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service about the wild horse plan's effects on steelhead under the Endangered Species Act.

-- Mateusz Perkowski

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