States and Indian tribes would have the option of managing wild horses, much as they do other wildlife, under legislation introduced by Rep. Chris Stewart.
The Utah Republican's bill is a response to growing concerns in his state about an overpopulation of wild horses. Ranchers, whose livestock compete with wild horses for scarce forage and water, are particularly anxious about the situation in the midst of a dry summer.
It's an issue that at first glance would seem a regional concern to those in the West. But rancher passions about the issue have some comparing it to the recent Cliven Bundy standoff in Nevada over grazing fees on federal land. And more broadly, it's stirring debate over the size and scope of federal authority on vast tracts of land in Western states.
The Bureau of Land Management agrees there are more wild horses on the range than the agency wants, reports The Salt Lake Tribune. But it had planned no roundups this year because there is no room in its long-term pastures.
Stewart's bill would allow states to implement horse and burro management plans that address the specific needs of their own state. The proposal would also give states authority to form cooperative agreements to manage herds that cross over borders. The federal government would continue to inventory the horses and burros.
"The federal government has never been able to properly manage the horses and burros in the west," Stewart said in a statement. "Every state faces different challenges, which is why it's important that they have the ability to manage their own wildlife."
Stewart, first elected in 2012, argues that federally-managed wild horse ranges have been overused. That has pushed cattle off the ranges.
"States and tribes already successfully manage large quantities of wildlife within their borders," Stewart said. "If horses and burros were under that same jurisdiction, I'm confident that new ideas and opportunities would be developed to manage the herds more successfully than the federal government."
The Next Cliven Bundy Situation?
But not everyone agrees with this approach. Wild horse advocates believe the BLM is overstating the number of horses on the range, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. And that in any case, they say, the agency should look first to reducing the number of livestock allowed to graze there. There are far more cattle than wild horses on public ranges, contend wild horse advocates.
Not surprisingly, that view clashes with ranchers on the ground, who see the horses as a threat to their livelihoods. And the rhetoric has heated up of late. Some have even invoked the name of Cliven Bundy, who was briefly a hero on the right. But many conservatives disowned Bundy after he made comments to The New York Times expressing baldly racist views.
Rural Utah leaders do not want a Cliven Bundy-style showdown with the Bureau of Land Management so they are rustling up allies and taking their fight to Washington, D.C...to put control of wild horses in the hands of the states.
'We don't want this to turn out to be anything like the Cliven Bundy deal. Just because the BLM can break the law does not mean we can break the law,' said Beaver County Commissioner Mark Whitney. 'Two wrongs don't make a right. ... We are trying to take the high road on this.'
Whitney said they want to avoid an armed showdown with the agency like this past April in Nevada, where Bundy ignored court orders to remove his cattle or pay grazing fees.
With that in mind, Beaver and Iron counties have backed off their threats to round up excess wild horses from the southern Utah range officials assert has been denuded of vegetation.
That's where Congressman Stewart's legislation comes in. In championing ranchers' interests Stewart is representing an important constituency in his state. The 53-year-old father of six came to Congress in January 2013 after a decorated military career and success as an author and businessman.
After an LDS church mission in Texas, Stewart graduated from Utah State University in 1984. Stewart was then accepted into the Air Force's Officer Training School.
Stewart served in the Air Force for 14 years, primarily flying rescue helicopters and the B-1B bomber. In 1995, Stewart was awarded the Mackay Trophy for "significant aerial achievement" for the combat capability operation known as Coronet Bat. On June 3, 1995, Stewart and a flight of two B-1s set the world record for the fastest non-stop flight around the world. Stewart was the senior project officer for this mission.
After his military service, Stewart became president and CEO of the Shipley Group, a consulting company that specializes in energy and environmental issues. He also wrote many books, including the bestsellers Seven Miracles That Saved America and The Miracle of Freedom: Seven Tipping Points That Saved the World.
Politix Editor-in-Chief David Mark is author, with Chuck McCutcheon, of Dog Whistles, Walk-Backs and Washington Handshakes: Decoding the Slang, Jargon and Bluster of American Political Speech, to be released on Sept. 2, 2014. He is also author of Going Dirty: The Art of Negative Campaigning.