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Forest Service Required to Consider Impacts of Wild Horses on Steelhead and Grazing

March 14, 2011

The Oregon Federal District Court ruled Thursday, March 10, 2011 that the Forest Service violated the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”) by failing to consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service (“NMFS”) about the effects of the agency’s management of wild horses on threatened steelhead species found on the Malheur National Forest.

The lawsuit was brought by Loren and Piper Stout, who own a ranch in Dayville, Oregon and hold a permit to graze cattle on the Malheur National Forest.  The Stouts were enjoined from grazing cattle in 2008 because of a lawsuit brought by an environmental group claiming that cattle were overgrazing and damaging stream banks.  In 2009, the Stouts fought back, regaining their ability to graze after submitting evidence that the impacts were caused by wild horses.  Nevertheless, because the wild horse impacts continued, the Forest Service severely limited the Stouts’ ability to graze in 2009.  In response, the Stouts brought their own lawsuit against the Forest Service, claiming that the agency failed to ensure that its management plan for wild horses was adequate to protect steelhead habitat.

In its opinion and order, the court agreed with the Stouts and ordered the Forest Service to consult with NMFS to determine whether their wild horse management plan adequately protects steelhead listed under the ESA.  In doing so, the court rejected arguments by the Forest Service that the Stouts should not be allowed to complain of wild horse impacts that affect their business.  As the court explained, even though the Forest Service committed to removing some excess horses in the agency’s plan, the Forest Service may find, after consulting with NMFS, that the ESA requires more – which could allow for improved steelhead habitat and more grazing.

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