Wild horses have long reigned as icons of freedom and the open West. But a federal lawsuit filed in Portland last week challenges that notion and highlights U.S. officials' increasing struggle to control exploding herds.
Thousands of more wild mustangs and burros roam Western rangelands than the land can support, a federal report has found, and if nothing is done, the problem will only get worse.
At the same time, the number of unwanted animals in federal holding facilities -- including one in Oregon -- has tripled since 2000 as adoptions plummet. The cost of caring for the animals, the October report said, threatens to overwhelm the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Wild Horse and Burro Program budget.
The issue landed in court after Loren and Piper Stout, an eastern Oregon ranching couple, were banned from grazing their cattle on land southeast of Dayville, a Grant County hamlet about 30 miles west of John Day.
The Stouts contend that their cattle were blamed for damage to rangelands that was actually caused by wild horses. Their suit against the U.S. Forest Service, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court, seeks to force federal authorities to control wild horses on the 62,000-acre Murderers Creek allotment.
"They have let it get out of hand, and we are getting blamed for it," Loren Stout, 52, said of the government's management of wild mustangs. "Horses are real tough on resources, and they are out there 12 months of the year."
The couple grazed their cattle on the rugged allotment from 1996 until October 2007, when they were forced to remove the herd as the result of a complaint in federal court by the Oregon Natural Desert Association, a 1,200-member environmental group in Bend.
The association alleged that the Stouts' cattle threatened endangered steelhead in Deer Creek and Murderers Creek.
But the Stouts contend that the damage to stream banks and rangeland came from elk and wild horses. They say in their lawsuit that more than 500 wild horses may be roaming the allotment, well over the 100-mustang limit recommended in the Malheur National Forest management plan.
Not only that, the Stouts say, the Murderers Creek range and streams would be in better shape if their cattle still grazed there. Cowhands on horseback, they said, kept the mustangs and elk on the move, preventing them from overgrazing and trampling stream banks.
"The cattle are only on the range 12 weeks a year during the summer when the adult steelhead have left the stream and after steelhead fry have emerged," said Scott W. Horngren of Portland, the Stouts' attorney. "The horses and elk are on the range 24/7, all year."
The Forest Service "is trying to address this concern about steelhead by focusing on one user of the range" -- the Stouts' cattle -- Horngren said.
Instead, Loren Stout said, the government and environmentalists should look at all resource users, including mustangs and elk.
Forest Service spokesman Jeff Shinn of the Malheur National Forest in John Day acknowledged that the number of mustangs roaming the Murderers Creek range is "at least twice our appropriate management level."
"There are some definite impacts from the horses and elk," he said.
A recent government count by helicopter tallied 115 wild horses on the allotment, plus estimates of another 115 hidden by thick timber, Shinn said. A count by horseback riders three years ago found 430 wild mustangs, whose populations typically grow by 20 percent a year.
The Forest Service gathered 134 wild horses from the allotment in 2007-08 and another roundup of an undetermined number is set for this year, Shinn said.
Regardless of how many mustangs roam around Murderers Creek, few would dispute that growing herds are a problem.
The October federal report, issued by the U.S. General Accounting Office, said 33,100 mustangs and burros roam 29 million acres of BLM-managed land in 10 Western states -- 5,900 more than the land can sustain.
"There is no natural check on their populations," said Brent Fenty, spokesman for Bend's Oregon Natural Desert Association. "There are certainly too many horses on public lands throughout the West."
The report also tallied 30,088 horses and burros in 11 federal holding facilities, up from 9,807 eight years ago. The cost of running the sanctuaries climbed from $7 million in 2000 to $21 million in 2007, the report said.
Complicating matters, adoptions through the BLM's "adopt-a-horse program" fell a whopping 36 percent in 2007 compared with 1990s levels. The BLM blames, in part, rising hay and fuel costs.
In Oregon, the GAO estimated, 2,473 wild horses roam the high desert and forests. About 400 are penned at the BLM's Wild Horse Corrals near Burns, up from 175 in August, said Gary Rose, a BLM spokesman in Burns.
And the problem won't go away any time soon. If left alone, the GAO report said, U.S. mustang and burro populations will balloon to 50,000 by 2012.
The Stouts, meanwhile, hope their lawsuit helps them regain the right to graze cattle at Murderers Creek, which takes its name from an 1860s battle with Native Americans that killed eight prospectors, according to "Oregon Geographic Names."
About that time, Piper Stout's great-great-great-grandfather, John Hyde, came from Tennessee to homestead in Grant County.
"If somebody wants to come after us for something we're not doing," Loren Stout said last week, "let's get it on."
Richard Cockle; email@example.com