(CN) — The future of Eastern Oregon’s Big Summit wild horse herd was at issue Wednesday as attorneys for Central Oregon Wild Horse Federation and the federal government met in front of a federal judge to argue whether the U.S. Forest Service violated the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act by issuing a plan in 2020 to reduce the herd from 135 horses to less than half.
According to Wild Horse Federation in its 2021 complaint, the service is “legally mandated to protect and preserve the wild horses of the Ochoco National Forest.”
“In violation of that core responsibility, the Forest Service has acted decisively to plan the irretrievable loss of genetic viability, adaptedness and identity of the herd, which will lead to their ultimate extinction as a distinct entity. USFS’s decision should be vacated,” wrote the Wild Horse Federation.
But contrary to this argument, the service says it’s within its right to remove excess horses from the Ochoco National Forest.
As explained by the government within its memorandum in support of federal defendant’s cross-motion for summary judgment, when the Ochoco Wild and Free-Roaming Horse Management Plan was established in 1975, it was determined that the appropriate management level was to be within the range of 55 to 65 wild horses. The service adjusted this range downward in 1989 to 60, but since then, the territory’s wild horse population has expanded to 135 horses in 2018.
In 2020, the service released a new territory plan addressing the overpopulation of wild horses, which proposed removing horses over the next five years until there remained 47-57 wild horses.
At the time, OPB reported that “excess” horses would be captured and relocated to public and private corrals where they would be adopted and that the service “will not euthanize horses as part of this plan.” On Wednesday, government attorney Hannah O’Keefe admitted that horses that could not be sold or adopted privately would be euthanized.
Overall, most of Wednesday’s arguments centered on whether the service’s actions violated the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act in addition to the Administrative Procedural Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.
According to Wild Horse Federation, the service authorized a “drastic herd reduction” without conducting an agency environmental review and producing an environmental impact statement, and have thus acted “arbitrarily and capriciously, and without observance of procedure required by law.” However, the government argues it evaluated any potential significant effects its 2020 plan may have on the environment by soliciting comments from the public, engaging with experts and preparing an environmental analysis.
Based on the service’s analysis, it determined its actions would have no significant environmental effect and that the range of 47-57 horses would protect the population of wild horses in “a thriving ecological balance as required by the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act.”
Government attorney Christian Carrara argued the overpopulation of horses in the area had a greater effect on the riparian environment than cattle or sheep and that even if livestock were removed, the service estimated that there would be insufficient forage for the horses under present conditions.
Even if a wild horse population does not exceed high “AML” – or appropriate management level – the government wrote, “when wild horse populations exceed the carrying capacity of range, or when wild horses stray outside of designated territory, the Forest Service is obligated to remove them.”
Wild Horse Federation attorney Bruce Wagman disagreed with the government’s research around the riparian environment, however, stating the research was based on two years’ worth of data taken from harsh winters.
“It’s not science, it’s anecdote,” said Wagman at one point.
As for Wild Horse Federation’s argument about genetic variability, the government argued there was no legal significance of a herd being genetically unique regarding the scope of a National Environmental Policy Act analysis.
“It shouldn’t even be relevant,” O’Keefe said.
However, O’Keefe later mentioned that the service was planning to take genetic samples from the herd before removing individuals because they suspect inbreeding is happening and explained that there is a “universal understanding” that “the best thing to do is to make sure the herd is genetically healthy which is often tied to genetic diversity.”
After two hours of arguments, U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew Hallman adjourned the motion hearing, stating he would take the matter under advisement and issue an opinion to a Portland judge at a later date.
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