PORTLAND - Dayville ranchers Loren and Piper Stout last week filed suit, as threatened, against the U.S. Forest Service over the burgeoning wild horse herd in the Murderers Creek area.

Attorneys for the Stouts filed their complaint Thursday, Feb. 5 in U.S. District Court, asking that the court require the Forest Service to comply with its own plan for managing the horses in the Murderers Creek Wild Horse Territory.

The lawsuit says the Malheur National Forest's management plan calls for limiting the herd to 100 head, a target number set by interagency wildlife experts.

The Stouts contend that the herd is double or even triple that size today.

Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management officials surveyed the area last month, counting 115 horses. They estimated that the herd actually numbers about 200-250, however, since the helicopter spotters weren't likely to see every horse.

Officials also said they hope to round up some of the horses in February.

A horse gather scheduled for last fall was cancelled due to conflicts with hunting season and a shortage of holding pen space.

The Stouts said they went to court to make sure the Forest Service carries through with a gather this winter.

The Stouts hold a grazing permit to run their cattle on forest land in the Murderers Creek area. However, they have been barred from using the grazing allotment since the Oregon Natural Desert Association won a preliminary injunction in District Court in May 2008. The environmental group argued that cattle grazing in the area harms the resident steelhead population, which is protected by the Endangered Species Act.

The Stouts are facing their second season without use of the grazing allotment while the injunction remains in place.

The Stouts contend that short-term use by cattle isn't harming the steelhead. However, they say that if cattle grazing is to be restricted, the Forest Service and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife should also be required to manage the horses and elk that roam the area. ODFW was not named as a defendant in the suit filed last week, however.

"The government agencies responsible for managing wildlife cannot stand idly by while our use of the range is completely shut down, especially when cattle represent only about 10 percent of the total annual use of the range, while horse and elk use is 90 percent of the range carrying capacity," Stout said.

Stout said cattle are on the range about 12 weeks a year during a time when the adult steelhead have already left the stream and after the steelhead fry have emerged. The horses and elk, he said, use the area year-round, including in the spring when the steelhead deposit their eggs in the streams.

"The government and the environmentalists should be looking at the big picture of all the users of the watershed and not put the full weight of watershed protection on the back of ranching families, particularly in tough economic times," Stout said.

The Stouts' complaint was filed by attorneys Scott W. Horngren and Julie A. Weis of the Portland firm, Haglund Kelley Horngren Jones & Wilder LLP. It follows a Dec. 30 notice of intent to sue the agency over the horse management issues.

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