- Associated Press - Monday, April 20, 2015

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - A federal judge in Utah has refused to block a lawsuit filed by a group of ranchers demanding the U.S. government remove wild horses from land they say is overpopulated.

U.S. District Judge Dee Benson ruled earlier this month that the ranchers can move forward with their claim that the Bureau of Land Management hasn’t kept the number of mustangs under control in south-central Utah.

In the short ruling, Benson did not weigh in on the merits of the case.

The ranchers claim the horses are overrunning the range, causing ecological damage and reducing grazing for livestock. They want the BLM to immediately round up excess horses.

The government and wild horse advocates say the numbers are under control.

There are currently about 4,300 wild horses and burros in Utah, above the appropriate management level of about 2,000, said Tom Gorey, a spokesman for BLM in Utah. He declined further comment because the case is pending in the court.

Attorneys for the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign had asked Judge Benson to dismiss the lawsuit. Its director, Suzanne Roy, said the group remains confident it will prevail when the judge evaluates the merits of the case.

A federal judge tossed a similar lawsuit filed by a coalition of rural Nevada counties last month.

A lawyer for the Utah ranchers, Karen Budd-Falen, said the lawsuit is different than the one in Nevada because the ranchers aren’t asking for permission to tell the BLM exactly when or how to round up the horses. The Utah ranchers just want to make sure the BLM rounds them up, the lawyer said.

The lawsuit deals with a large swath of land near Cedar City where a substantial portion of the state’s wild horses live, according to Budd-Falen. She said the government will next have to provide the ranchers with records on control measures.

Another, similar wild horse lawsuit has been filed in Wyoming, Budd-Falen said.

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Associated Press writer Brady McCombs contributed to this report.

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