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Horse advocates ask court to halt mustang roundup

by Scott Sonner
Associated Press

RENO – Horse protection advocates on Friday asked a U.S. appeals court for an emergency order blocking the government’s biggest roundup of the year of thousands of free-roaming mustangs in California and Nevada.

Despite an accompanying plea from dozens of Congress members, Interior Department officials said they didn’t intend to suspend the roundup of more than 2,000 mustangs before it was scheduled to begin on Monday on both sides of the state line about 120 miles northwest of Reno.

The department’s Bureau of Land Management announced later Friday the roundup across nearly 800,000 acres of BLM land in the Twin Peaks Horse Management Area would be delayed most likely until Wednesday but said that was due to helicopter maintenance, not the legal challenge.

Lawyers for the San Francisco Bay Area-based In Defense of Animals and others filed the motion for an emergency stay with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco a day after a federal judge in Sacramento had refused to issue a temporary injunction halting the roundup.

The 2,100 horses and additional 200 burros to be gathered are the most among more than two dozen roundups that began last October and are to continue through September as part of BLM’s plan to cull about 12,000 of 38,000 mustangs and burros from herds roaming 10 Western states.

The agency maintains that such gathers are necessary to thin overpopulated herds causing ecological damage to the rangeland that serves as critical habitat for numerous species across much of the West, including sage grouse.

But critics said there has been no discussion or consideration of removing some of the 10,000-plus cattle and sheep currently grazing on the Twin Peaks HMA.

“These wild horses are a native species. They are not an invasive species and shouldn’t be treated like one,” said Rachel Fazio, one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs.

“BLM is insisting on pushing these things through without taking heed of the fact there is a very strong contingent of people who are against them,” she said from her office in Cedarville, Calif.

The motion filed in San Francisco said the BLM’s environmental assessment of the planned roundup failed to provide the data it relied upon to conclude springs and creeks in the area are “currently damaged and in a state of decline and that this damage is recent and is primarily caused by wild horses and burros, rather than by livestock.”

“This emergency stay aims to stop the agency’s mass and illegal removal of federally protected mustangs from the range to serve the livestock industry and other commercial interests that exploit our public lands,” said Stuart Gross, the Sacramento-based lead attorney for the horse advocates.

It wasn’t clear when the court would rule. A panel of judges began to review the request Friday afternoon, Fazio said, but most likely will give the Interior Department’s lawyers an opportunity to formally respond to the request before making any decision.

“We know they have filed for appeal but at this time there is no stay, so it is our intention to proceed,” BLM spokeswoman Jan Bedrosian. She confirmed that a BLM contractor indicated he needed to do maintenance work on a helicopter “so it looks like we probably will start Wednesday as opposed to Monday.”

Nancy Haug, BLM district manager based in Susanville, Calif., said earlier this week that the horses in the Twin Peaks HMA are healthy and water remains available.

“However, the current population of wild horses and burros remains far above the number the range can handle, and this roundup is necessary to keep both horses and range in that healthy state,” she said.

The legal challenge said the herd population level the BLM maintains is appropriate for Twin Peaks hasn’t been evaluated since 1988 and does not represent current conditions.

Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, urged Interior Secretary Ken Salzar in a July 30 letter signed by 53 other House members to suspend all scheduled roundups until the National Academy of Sciences can review the program.

Rahall cited the significant number of horses that have been killed during helicopter-assisted roundups.

The appeal to the 9th Circuit said the BLM typically projects about 3 percent of the horses will perish as a result of any given roundup but that number has grown to closer to 10 percent in recent roundups in Nevada and California.

“The BLM’s planned roundup will involve the stampeding of over 2,000 wild horses and burros by helicopter across miles and miles of rocky, undulating terrain in the summer heat until the frightened, exhausted and dehydrated animals are driven into corrals at trap sites,” Gross said.

“These wild horse and burros, some less than six weeks old, will face substantial risks of injury and death at every stage in this process,” he said.

Over the winter, 105 horses died or were euthanized and at least 40 mares suffered stress-induced late-term abortions as a result of a roundup in the Calico mountains southeast of where the Oregon, California and Nevada lines meet.

At least another 34 died or were euthanized in recent weeks during a gather in northeast Nevada’s Elk county.

“Given that pattern,” Rahall urged Sleaze in the July 30 letter to suspend any pending gathers “until the agency demonstrates that it has addressed the failings of the current program and can ensure the safety and well-being of the animals you are charged with protecting.”

Interior Department spokeswoman Celia Boddington told AP on Friday officials were still reviewing the letter and were preparing a response but that it wouldn’t come until Monday at the earliest.

“We remain committed to the conservation of wild horses and protection of the range,” she said.