- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 21, 2015

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - A federal judge Tuesday dismissed a lawsuit filed by Wyoming officials that sought to compel the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to promptly round up several overpopulated wild horse herds in the western part of the state.

The BLM isn’t required by law to round up horses merely because it has determined the animals are overpopulated, U.S. District Judge Nancy Freudenthal ruled in granting requests to dismiss filed by the Interior Department and wild horse advocacy groups.

In seeking to dismiss, the federal government and groups including the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign pointed out the BLM may consider several factors before it decides to proceed with roundups under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act.

Such factors can include information in the agency’s land-use plans.

“If wild horse management could be distilled to a numerical calculation, there would be no reason for Congress to have specified the various factors for consideration in the determination that an overpopulation exists and that action is necessary to remove excess animals,” Freudenthal wrote.

The ruling was a setback to ranchers concerned that wild horses can harm grazing lands. The Wyoming Stock Growers Association filed a friend of the court brief on the state’s side.

Wyoming filed the lawsuit in December. Seven of Wyoming’s 16 wild horse herd management areas were overpopulated by anywhere from 4 percent to 106 percent, according to the response filed by attorneys for Wyoming to the motions to dismiss.

Overpopulated horses not only damage grazing lands, they degrade habitat for big-game animals and the greater sage grouse. The ground-dwelling bird faces possible listing in the months ahead as a federally protected threatened or endangered species.

Ultimately, Wyoming’s argument that the numbers alone were sufficient to require the BLM to proceed with rounding up horses wasn’t persuasive.

“The governor is disappointed in the decision. The attorney general’s office is reviewing Judge Freudenthal’s ruling and assessing the state’s options,” Gov. Matt Mead spokesman David Bush said by email.

An attorney for the Interior Department, Alison Finnegan, didn’t immediately return a message seeking comment.

“We are pleased that the court declined to allow this blatant attempt by the state to scapegoat the small number of wild horses that remain in Wyoming to benefit ranchers,” Caitlin Zittkowski, an attorney for the wild horse advocates, said in a release.

Freudenthal last month upheld a BLM roundup of about 1,300 wild horses east and south of Rock Springs last fall after it was contested by horse advocacy groups.

The BLM in February and March took public comments on a proposal to round up wild horses from five herd management areas between Lander and Rawlins. Under the proposal, rounded-up mares would be given fertility control drugs before being released.

BLM officials have not decided when or if that roundup might occur.

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Follow Mead Gruver at https://twitter.com/meadgruver

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