Saturday, February 14, 2009

Oregon Ranchers Sue over Wild Horse Herds

Family wants Forest Service to manage Murderers Creek herd

East Oregonian Publishing Group

Dayville, Ore., ranchers Loren and Piper Stout this week carried through on their pledge to sue the U.S. Forest Service over the burgeoning wild horse herd in the Murderers Creek area.

Attorneys for the Stouts filed a complaint Thursday, Feb. 5, in U.S. District Court, asking that the court require the Forest Service to comply with its own plan for managing the horses in the Murderers Creek Wild Horse Territory. The lawsuit says the Forest Plan for the Malheur National Forest calls for limiting the herd to 100 head, a target number set by interagency wildlife experts.

The Stouts contend that the herd is double or even triple that size today.

Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management officials surveyed the area in January, counting 115 horses. They estimated that the herd actually numbers about 200 to 250, however, since the helicopter spotters weren't likely to see every horse.

Officials also said they hope to round up some horses in February, but a horse gather scheduled for last fall was canceled due to conflicts with hunting season and a shortage of holding pen space.

The Stouts said they went to court to make sure the Forest Service carries through with a gather this winter.

The Stouts hold a grazing permit to run their cattle on forest land in the Murderers Creek area. However, they have been barred from using the grazing allotment since the Oregon Natural Desert Association won a preliminary injunction in District Court in May 2008. The environmental group contends that cattle grazing in the area damages steelhead population that is protected by the Endangered Species Act.

The Stouts are going into their second season without use of the grazing allotment while the injunction remains in place.

The Stouts contend that cattle grazing isn't harming the steelhead. However, they say that if cattle grazing is to be restricted, the agencies should also be required to manage the horses and elk that roam the area.

"Cattle represent only about 10 percent of the total annual use of the range, while horse and elk use is 90 percent of the range carrying capacity," Loren Stout said.

He said cattle are on the range about 12 weeks a year during a time when the adult steelhead have already left the stream and after the steelhead fry have emerged. The horses and elk, he said, use the area year-round, including in the spring when the steelhead deposit their eggs in the streams.

"The government and the environmentalists should be looking at the big picture of all the users of the watershed and not put the full weight of watershed protection on the back of ranching families, particularly in tough economic times," Loren Stout said.

The Stouts' complaint was filed by attorneys Scott W. Horngren and Julie A. Weis of the Portland firm Haglund Kelley Horngren Jones & Wilder LLP. It follows a Dec. 30 notice of intent to sue the agency over the horse management issues.

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