SALT LAKE CITY — The looming threat of catastrophic wildfires, the overpopulation of wild horses and rangeland conditions for livestock were among the top concerns the agricultural community aired with Interior Secretary David Bernhardt during a Friday roundtable discussion in Utah.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said the conversation — and complaints — did not go unheeded by Bernhardt, who grew up in Colorado and was visiting Utah for a number of events.
“He’s very familiar with Western issues,” Lee said. “These are controversial and difficult issues. … He has not lost sight of Westerners.”
Bernhardt, in a telephone interview after the roundtable, said one of the chief complaints raised by livestock producers is the need for better management of rangeland to prevent wildfires or degradation from wild horses.
“The reality is they would like to see more active management of our rangeland, which would minimize devastating wildfires, which is exactly what the president is proposing and doing,” he said.
The Interior Department, in fact, is on the cusp of making significant management changes for how some fuels are addressed, he said.
“We are about to finalize a (new rule) for rapid treatment related to pinion juniper that will be very significant for the state of Utah,” he said.
That rule would allow the agency to do more vegetation treatments on a yearly basis, he added.
Lee said the action is critical given the impacts of catastrophic wildfires to property, life and livestock producers who have seen the charred bodies of the animals they care for.
“It really is a heart-breaking issue and a deep concern to everyone,” he said, pointing a finger at federal policies he says have fostered neglect of landscapes over the years.
“It ends up being an environmental disaster on top of everything else.”
Brian Steed, director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, attended Friday’s roundtable on agricultural issues and said it was a fruitful discussion, especially when it came to rangeland management, wild horses and grazing.
“We have been working together with the wildlife community and agricultural producers over the years and that is the benefit of reducing catastrophic wildfire through these partnerships,” he said.
Noting that wildfires don’t respect geopolitical boundaries, Steed said it is critical that the state and federal government play well together.
“We have a pretty good working relationship with our federal partners in the BLM trying to identify those areas most likely to burn,” he said.
The number of wild horses in Utah — far beyond the established federal limit — was raised as a concern from both the grazing community and Steed’s agency, which has oversight of wildlife such as deer and antelope.
“Wild horses are always something we are concerned about,” he said.
Within the Interior Department, the Bureau of Land Management has oversight of wild horse and burro populations in Western states.
Greg Sheehan, director of the Utah BLM, said the agency has been successful this year at removing a number of wild horses in the state,