By Jennifer Dobner
SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) - The federal government has approved a plan to relocate 140 wild horses from over-populated herds roaming southwest Utah, officials said on Tuesday, in a bid to quell a long-running dispute between its land agency, ranchers and environmentalists.
The horses will be gathered next month by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in the first of four such operations scheduled to take place over the next few years in Iron and Beaver counties, about 250 miles (400 km) south of Salt Lake City.
Under the plan approved on Monday, which also sets guidelines for monitoring herd health, the first animals will be caught in the Blawn Wash region. The BLM estimates 775 horses are in the area, many times more than the 100 it is suited for.
The gathered wild horses will be taken to holding facilities and later offered for adoption. By law, they cannot be killed.
Critics of the plan who want the horses left unmolested say the agency has bowed to pressure from ranchers, ignoring 35,000 citizens who submitted letters opposing the proposal.
"This wild horse round-up is about continuing taxpayer-subsidized grazing of private livestock on public lands and it comes at the expense of the mustangs," said Deniz Bolbol of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign. "There are too many cows on our public lands, not too many wild horses."
Overall, the BLM estimates that there are some 40,600 wild horses, or about 14,000 more than federal regulations allow. The agency says the herd grows in size by about a fifth every year, and has not been culled for years due to budget constraints.
Last month a group of Utah ranchers sued the BLM in federal court, asking a judge to force the agency to comply with its guidelines and reduce the number of horses.
Ranchers say failure to manage the herds has sharply cut the availability of range grasses needed for cattle grazing.
(Reporting by Jennifer Dobner; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Sandra Maler)