Kleppe v. New Mexico
426 U.S. 529 (1976)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Kleppe v. New Mexico, 426 U.S. 529 (1976)

Kleppe v. New Mexico

No. 74-1488

Argued March 23, 1976

Decided June 17, 1976

426 U.S. 529

Syllabus

The Wild Free-roaming Horses and Burros Act (Act) was enacted to protect "all unbranded and unclaimed horses and burros on public lands of the United States" from "capture, branding, harassment, or death," to accomplish which "they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands." The Act provides that all such animals on the public lands administered by the Secretary of the Interior through the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) or by the Secretary of Agriculture through the Forest Service are committed to the jurisdiction of the respective Secretaries, who are

"directed to protect and manage [the animals] as components of the public lands . . . in a manner that is designed to achieve and maintain a thriving natural ecological balance on the public lands,"

and if the animals stray from those lands onto privately owned land, the private landowners may inform federal officials, who shall arrange to have the animals removed. Appellees, the State of New Mexico, its Livestock Board and director, and the purchaser of three unbranded burros seized by the Board (pursuant to the New Mexico Estray Law) on federal lands and sold at public auction, and whose return to public lands had been demanded by the BLM, brought this suit for injunctive relief and for a declaratory judgment that the Act is unconstitutional. A three-judge District Court held the Act unconstitutional and enjoined its enforcement.

Held: As applied to this case, the Act is a constitutional exercise of congressional power under the Property Clause of the Constitution, which provides that

"Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States."

Art. IV, § 3, cl. 2. Pp. 426 U. S. 535-547.

(a) The Clause, in broad terms, empowers Congress to determine what are "needful" rules "respecting" the public lands, and there is no merit to appellees' narrow reading that the provision

Page 426 U. S. 530

grants Congress power only to dispose of, to make incidental rules regarding the use of, and to protect federal property. The Clause must be given an expansive reading, for "[t]he power over the public lands thus entrusted to Congress is without limitations," United States v. San Francisco,310 U. S. 16, 310 U. S. 29, and Congress' complete authority over the public lands includes the power to regulate and protect the wildlife living there. Pp. 426 U. S. 536-541.

(b) In arguing that the Act encroaches upon state sovereignty and that Congress can obtain exclusive legislative jurisdiction over the public lands in a State only by state consent (absent which it may not act contrary to state law), appellees have confused Congress' derivative legislative power from a State pursuant to Art. I, § 8, cl. 17, with Congress' powers under the Property Clause. Federal legislation under that Clause necessarily, under the Supremacy Clause, overrides conflicting state laws. And here, though the Act does not establish exclusive federal jurisdiction over the public lands in New Mexico, it overrides the New Mexico Estray Law insofar as that statute attempts to regulate federally protected animals. Pp. 426 U. S. 541-546.

(c) The question of the Act's permissible reach under the Property Clause over private lands to protect wild free-roaming horses and burros that have strayed from public land need not be, and is not, decided in the context of this case. Pp. 426 U. S. 546-547.

406 F.Supp. 1237, reversed and remanded. MARSHALL, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Page 426 U. S. 531

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