A ranching couple in Dayville, who last summer was forced by a federal court to stop grazing cattle on a Malheur National Forest parcel, is now suing the U.S. Forest Service, stating the agency needs to do something about the wild horses in the area.
The federal lawsuit is the latest step in a dispute over which animals — and how many of them — should be allowed in the Murderers Creek area southwest of John Day. And the ranchers say the Forest Service needs to cut the number of wild horses on the Malheur National Forest by about half to comply with the agency’s own standards.
For years, Loren and Piper Stout have grazed cattle on a parcel of Forest Service land in the Murderers Creek area. But as a result of a lawsuit filed by the Bend-based Oregon Natural Desert Association, a federal judge issued an injunction in 2008 stating the Stouts could not graze cattle in the area while he considered the case.
“For a small family ranch like that, that was pretty devastating,” Scott Horngren, the Stouts’ attorney, said previously.
The Oregon Natural Desert Association has been working on the issue since 2003, said staff attorney Dave Becker. Its goal is to get the Forest Service and other agencies to study the impact of grazing on Murderers Creek, a tributary of the John Day River that is important habitat for steelhead, he said. Steelhead are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.
“We’ve been trying to get those agencies to comply with the law and really ensure the protection of steelhead,” Becker said.
Grazing isn’t compatible with steelhead protection, he said, since cows congregate and wallow in streams and trample banks, damaging streams. Horses and elk don’t cause as much damage as cows, he said, since they prefer the higher and drier areas, and only come to water bodies to drink or cross.
A double standard?
But the Stouts said large numbers of horses and elk are damaging the area even more than the cattle, and in late December, the ranchers filed legal paperwork, giving federal agencies notice that they intended to file a lawsuit.
The message of the notice, Horngren said, was that if cattle are damaging fish habitat, the government needs to consider the impact horses and elk are having on the streams as well.
“The cattle use about 15 percent of the available forage,” he said in January, “whereas the horses and the elk combined are closer to 85 percent. The concern is if you’re going to destroy the livelihood of the rancher, and they’re only 15 percent of the concern, to ignore the other 85 percent is putting your head in the sand.”
The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Portland this week focuses on the wild horses, Horngren said Thursday.
The Malheur National Forest has a management plan that sets the optimal number of horses in the area at 100 animals, he said. But a January helicopter survey put the population at about 200 horses.
“Because the horses are above the standard, they should be brought down to their sustainable level of 100,” he said.
The Forest Service can’t comment on the pending litigation, said Jennifer Harris, a spokeswoman with the Malheur National Forest.
The recent horse survey counted 115 animals, she said, and because helicopter surveys can underestimate actual numbers, the National Forest estimates there are between 200 and 250 animals in the area, she said. While the goal in the management plan is to average around 100 horses, the maximum is supposed to be 140.
The Forest Service, along with the Bureau of Land Management, has a plan in place to round up horses in the area and send them to wild horse facilities, she said, but it is weather dependent.
“If it rains and is too muddy, we won’t be able to do it,” she said. If the ground froze and it snowed, they could round up the animals, but if it stays muddy, the contractors might wait until the summer.
What to do with the growing number of feral horses rounded up on BLM land, now at BLM facilities, has been in the news recently — in November, the BLM decided horses in Oregon will not be euthanized or sold to slaughterhouses, according to previous Bulletin reports, and an individual has proposed buying a million acres to use as a refuge.
The point of the lawsuit, Horngren said, is to make sure that the Forest Service follows through with its plan and does, in fact, round up animals in order to adhere to the management plan. The next step is for the Forest Service to respond to the suit.
Becker, with the Oregon Natural Desert Association, said while the number of horses in the area could be a problem for the streams, cattle are an even more pressing concern. “There’s a scientific consensus that the impacts of cows on riparian areas, the habitat for these threatened steelhead — is far more significant,” he said.