RENO — Tensions bubbled over on the range in a turf battle that has been simmering for decades over one of the icons of the American West.
The presence of wild horses continued to pit animal advocates against ranchers. The Bureau of Land Management agreed Friday to remove horses from the range in southwest Utah after Iron County commissioners threatened to take matters in their own hands.
Wild-horse protection advocates say the government is rounding up too many mustangs while allowing livestock to feed at taxpayer expense on the same rangeland scientists say is being overgrazed.
Ranchers say the government refuses to gather enough horses in the herds that double in size every five years.
The BLM says it’s doing all it can, given budget constraints, overflowing holding pens and a distaste for the politically unpopular option of slaughtering excess horses.
During the past 10 years, horse advocates have been more the aggressors, asking courts to block roundups they say violate the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burro Act of 1971. But in recent months, ranchers have again gone back on the attack.
The Nevada Farm Bureau Federation and Nevada Association of Counties sued the government in U.S. District Court in Reno in December seeking to force the BLM to step up roundups and, if necessary, sell excess mustangs for slaughter — something they say is allowed under the law but that the federal agency has resisted.
Earlier this week, a federal magistrate judge in Reno granted horse advocates’ request to become a party in that case based on their argument no one else involved — including the BLM — has the horses’ best interest in mind.
In Utah, Iron County commissioners had threatened to gather up hundreds of mustangs themselves, saying the horses threaten livestock and wildlife on rangelands already damaged by drought.
“We will take whatever action we have to take to reduce those numbers immediately,” Commissioner David Miller told the Salt Lake Tribune.
But BLM State Director Juan Palma, in an email sent Friday to Miller, said he is committed to working with the county in developing a plan to reduce the number of horses, The Spectrum of St. George, Utah, reported.
“Both the BLM and Iron County have a shared interest in the well-being of the range and all who rely in its health. … Additionally, (we have) our shared interest in the well-being of sustainable populations of our wild horses,” Palma wrote.