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Kleppe v. New Mexico

Citation. 22 Ill.426 U.S. 529, 96 S. Ct. 2285, 49 L. Ed. 2d 34 (1976)
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Brief Fact Summary.

Congress passed a law protecting wild horses and burros (small donkeys) on federal lands. The New Mexico Livestock Board removed some burros that were interfering with a rancher’s livestock operation. The government sued to recover the animals and return them to the wild.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

Article IV, Section: 3 of the United States Constitution provides that “the Congress shall have the power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States” The Complete power that Congress has over public lands necessarily includes the power to regulate and protect the wildlife living there.


In 1971 Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act to protect all unbranded and unclaimed horses and burros on federal public lands. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) managed the property and the goal was to achieve and maintain a thriving natural ecological balance.
A New Mexico rancher, Stephenson, had access to federal land, Taylor Well and some 8,000 surrounding acres, through a grazing permit. He was informed that several unbranded burros were seen near Taylor Well where he watered his cattle. Stephenson complained to BLM that the burros were interfering with his livestock operation by molesting his cattle and eating their feed. BLM refused to remove them so Stephenson complained to the New Mexico Livestock Board.
The Board removed and then sold 19 unbranded and unclaimed burros pursuant to the NM Estray Law. BLM then asserted jurisdiction and demanded that the Board recover the animals and return them to the public lands.


Was Congress acting within its Article IV property power when trying to protect animals on public lands?


Justice Marshall opinion: Yes. District Court judgment is reversed.
The Court would not accept New Mexico’s narrow reading of the property clause, which was to limit Congressional power to just two acts: (1) the power to dispose of and make incidental rules regarding the use of federal property and (2) the power to protect federal property. New Mexico had no support beyond dicta in two cases for its narrow view.
The Court determined that the property clause allows Congress to determine what are “needful” rules “respecting” public lands. The Court has repeatedly asserted that this power over public lands is without limitations. The Court cites several cases in concluding that regulating and protecting wildlife is within this broad property power since it is both needful and concerns public land.


Congress may not have general control over public policy in a state but it does have total power over property placed under its control. The scope of that power consists of any needful regulation respecting the territory or property. Courts have defined “needful” very broadly, to include protecting the wildlife living on the

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