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American Horse Protection Ass'n v. Department of the Interior

Citation: 7 ELR 20306
No. Nos. 75-1033, -1196, 551 F.2d 432/10 ERC 1043/(D.C. Cir., 02/02/1977)

Reversing the district court, the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals holds that the ownership determination of animals under § 5 of the Wild, Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act (the Act), 16 U.S.C. §§ 1131-1140, ELR 41834, is to be made by federal officials. The Act brings "all unbranded and unclaimed horses and burros on public lands of the United States" under the protection and management of the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior. The Act permits the Secretaries to enter into cooperative agreements with state and local agencies and to issue regulations in furtherance of the Act's provisions. Under § 5 of the Act, private ownership of horses or burros on public lands may be asserted pursuant to state laws.

A roundup of horses on public lands near Howe, Utah was carried out by ranchers, and a number of horses were killed. The rest were retained in custody to determine ownership. A state official, pursuant to a cooperative agreement between Idaho, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and the Forest Service, determined that the horses were not wild, and the district court granted summary judgment to appellees, rejecting appellants' contention that the state official lacked jurisdiction to determine ownership conclusively.

In construing § 5, the court finds that the language of the Act fails to give a reliable answer as to whether the ownership decision is to be made by state or federal officials so that guidance must come from the Act's purpose, legislative history, and administrative construction. Federal law was deemed essential to protecting the animals because of the inability of the states to accomplish this purpose. While states may play some role, it is consistent that the federal government make the final decision on the crucial ownership question. Although appellees asserted that the states have final say this is inconsistent with BLM administrative determinations under the Act, such as instructional memoranda prior to implementing regulations, the proposed regulations which required a private claimant to present to the federal officer a certificate proving ownership from a state official, and the final regulations which indicate that the federal officer must be satisfied regarding the ownership claim. Putting great weight on these administrative determinations, the court concludes that the final role for determining ownership is reserved to the federal government.

The full text of this opinion is available from ELR (23 pp. $3.00, ELR Order No. C-1110).

Counsel for Appellants
Robert C. McCandless
Fensterwald & McCandless
1707 H St., NW, Washington DC 20006
(202) 223-8440

Counsel for Appellees
Wallace H. Johnson, Ass't Attorney General; Dirk D. Snel, Edmund B. Clark, John E. Lindskold
Department of Justice, Washington DC 20530
(202) 739-2769

Earl J. Silbert, U.S. Attorney; Robert M. Werdig, Jr., Ass't U.S. Attorney
U.S. Courthouse, 3d & Constitution Ave., NW,
Washington DC 20001
(202) 426-7810

Robinson, J., joined by Bazelon, C.J., and Tamm, J.

[OPINION OMITTED BY PUBLISHER IN ORIGINAL SOURCE]