Suit may block wild horse roundup
Animal protection advocates are asking a federal judge to block the government’s planned roundup of thousands of wild mustangs in Nevada next month, saying the helicopter-aided gathers are illegal because they “traumatize, injure and kill” some of the animals.
Lawyers for the California-based In Defense of Animals said in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Washington D.C. on Monday that the wild horses are an integral part of the natural ecosystem and should remain on rangeland throughout much of the West rather than be herded into long-term holding pens.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management says the continued growth of the animals’ population and the soaring costs of managing them leaves the government no choice but to remove them from federal lands, where they compete for food and habitat with wildlife and livestock owned by ranchers with U.S. grazing permits.
The agency plans to round up about 2,700 animals in early December about 100 miles north of Reno the biggest single gather planned this year under a strategy to remove 11,500 wild horses and burros from the range over each of the next three years.
The lawsuit said the plans call for removal of the vast majority of the estimated 3,095 mustangs in the Calico Complex Herd Management Area near Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.
“This suit aims to halt the inherent cruelty of the BLM’s wild horse roundups, which traumatize, injure and kill horses, subvert the will of Congress and are entirely illegal,” said William Spriggs, a lawyer representing suit’s plaintiffs in the suit, which also includes Craig Downer, a renowned wildlife ecologist in Nevada.
The lawsuit said the roundup violates the Wild Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act, which Congress passed in 1971 to protect wild horses and burros as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.”
The suit cited part of the law that said the animals “shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death (and that) to accomplish this they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of public lands.”
Earlier this year, BLM officials said they may for the first time have to consider euthanizing wild horses because they can’t keep up with the population growth. But Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, overseeing the agency, instead is pursuing a proposal to ship horses to pastures and corrals in the Midwest and East.
The Chicago-based Equine Welfare Alliance, a coalition of more than 60 organizations, asked Salazar last week to impose an immediate moratorium on the roundups and warned lawsuits would follow if the gathers continued.
Alan Shepherd, BLM’s lead wild horse coordinator in Nevada, said the lawsuit was “not unexpected” given the “climate of the whole wild horse world right now.”
“It is a pretty big management action we need to take in this area,” he said of the plans to bring the current population of about 3,100 down to somewhere between 600 and 900.
Shepherd argued the move is “very much in conformance” with the act, which he said requires BLM to manage the herds to appropriate population levels.
“We need to remove some excess animals here. It just happens to be a lot of excess animals,” Shepherd said.
BLM spokesman Tom Gorey that herd sizes nationally double every four years, “so it’s untenable to suggest we do a moratorium,” BLM spokesman Tom Gorey said earlier this month.
The lawsuit said that since 1971 the BLM has removed over 270,000 horses from Western rangeland and taken away nearly 20 million acres of wild horse habitat on public lands that were protected by Congress. It said 32,000 wild horses currently are being held in government pens.
“Americans strongly support protecting wild horses on their natural ranges in the West,” Spriggs said.
“These animals comprise a tiny fraction of animals grazing the range. An estimated 8 million livestock, but only 37,000 horses and burros, graze on public lands,” he said.
The BLM estimates there currently are about 36,600 of the animals in the wild – about half in Nevada. The roundups are intended to reduce the population to what the agency considers an “appropriate management level” of 26,600.
Gorey said the target level is based on a thorough scientific analysis that should stand any legal scrutiny.