- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 25, 2015

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - A group of ranchers demanding that the federal government remove wild horses in Utah will have to wait to find out whether or not their case will be tried.

Wild-horse advocacy groups argued in federal court on Wednesday that U.S. District Judge Dee Benson should dismiss the ranchers’ case. Benson did not set a deadline for ruling on the issue.

Ranchers say the mustangs are overrunning the range, causing ecological damage and reducing livestock grazing areas. They argue that the Bureau of Land Management should immediately remove horses in excess of their designated “appropriate management level” from public and private land.

The Bureau of Land Management says the wild-horse population is well above its appropriate level of 1,956 and estimates that about 4,500 mustangs are living on the range. The agency has not yet acted on requests from ranchers to remove horses, and the agency says it lacks the money and space to do so.

An attorney for the wild-horse advocacy groups argued Wednesday that the government is not required to remove the mustangs.

The attorney, Caitlin Zittkowski, said the appropriate management level is only one of a number of tools used by the Bureau of Land Management to determine whether a population of wild horses is excessive. The bureau’s handbook explicitly says that it is not acceptable to remove horses based on the appropriate management level alone, she said.

Even if it was the population is excessive, it would be reasonable to give the bureau more time to address the ranchers’ request, Zittkowski said.

The ranchers’ attorney, Karen Budd-Falen, said previous court cases have defined populations exceeding the appropriate management level as excessive and said the government has a responsibility to remove the horses.

Judge Benson said he was struggling to interpret a statute that requires the Bureau of Land Management to determine if there are excess wild horses and then figure out if any horses need to be removed. “It would be nice if the statute was a little more direct,” he said.

He said could not understand what circumstance would allow the federal agency to not remove excessive horses.

Benson said he will need to take a few days to sort out that statute before making a decision.

Earlier this month, a judge in Nevada dismissed a similar lawsuit filed by a group of rural counties there. He said it amounted to an unsubstantiated attack on the Bureau of Land Management’s wild horse policy.

Steven Yardley, a rancher in southern Utah’s Beaver County, said Wednesday that ranchers work hard to keep the land pristine and the government should do its part. The wild horses, by eating the desirable plants that thrive in the desert environment, allow invasive weeds to come in and overrun the land, Yardley said.

The Bureau of Land Management should round up the horses immediately to ensure the health of the range, he said.

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