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Mass Roundup of Nevada Wild Horses Illegal, Lawsuit Alleges

WASHINGTON, DC, November 24, 2009 (ENS) – Plans for a massive roundup and removal of more than 2,700 wild horses from public lands in Nevada were challenged today in federal court in Washington, DC.

In Defense of Animals, an international animal protection organization located in San Rafael, California, and ecologist Craig Downer brought the lawsuit against the Bureau of Land Management to stop the roundup, scheduled to begin in early December and last three months.

If carried out as planned, the roundup would remove 80 percent of the wild horses living in the Calico Complex Herd Management Area in northwestern Nevada. It is by far the largest of any wild horse roundup planned by the BLM for Fiscal Year 2010.

“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 attorney William Spriggs, a partner at Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney and lead counsel on the lawsuit. The firm is representing the plaintiffs on a pro bono basis.

The lawsuit alleges that the BLM plan to utilize helicopters to indiscriminately chase as many as 2,738 of the estimated 3,095 Calico horses into holding pens violates the Wild Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act, passed unanimously by Congress in 1971.

The Act designated America’s wild horses and burros as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West,” specifying they “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.”

Calico Mountains wild horse band, June 2009. (Photo courtesy BLM)

“Americans strongly support protecting wild horses on their natural ranges in the West,” Spriggs said. “We hope to stop the cruel roundups and mass stockpiling of wild horses and burros in government holding facilities while the Obama administration crafts a new policy that protects these animals and upholds the will of Congress and the public’s desire to preserve this important part of our national heritage.”

Since 1971, the BLM has removed over 270,000 horses from their Western home ranges and taken away nearly 20 million acres of wild horse habitat on public lands that were protected by Congress as being “necessary to sustain an existing herd or herds of wild horses and burros … and … is devoted principally … to their welfare.”

This policy is based on what the plaintiffs say is “the unsupportable claim” that Western ranges cannot sustain wild horses and burros.

In its environmental assessment of the Calico Complex roundup, the BLM states that the Appropriate Management Level for wild horses on the 542,100 acre area is established as a range of 572 to 952 wild horses.

“Managing wild horse populations within this number is expected to assure a thriving natural ecological balance and multiple-use relationship within the Calico Mountains Complex. A direct count census was conducted in September 2009 showing a present population estimate of 3055 wild horses,” the agency states.

The BLM defines an Appropriate Management Level as “an estimate of wild horses and/or burros the habitat can support while maintaining a thriving natural ecological balance with other resource values and uses.”

Downer and In Defense of Animals allege that the main reason for removing these wild horses is to serve another use of the land – that of the livestock industry.

While the BLM intends to remove thousands of horses from the Calico Complex Herd Management Area over its stated concerns about the health of the range, the agency refuses to consider removing any of the more than 2,000 head of cattle currently grazing in the same area, says In Defense of Animals.

The organization points to a report by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, that concluded, “BLM’s decisions on how many wild horses to remove from federal rangelands were not based on direct evidence that wild horse populations exceeded what the range could support and that removals were often not accompanied by reductions in livestock grazing levels or range management to increase the land’s capacity.”

These animals comprise a tiny fraction of animals grazing the range, the plaintiffs maintain. An estimated eight million head of livestock, but only 37,000 horses and burros, graze on public lands.

But in its environmental assessment, the BLM claims its position is backed by the state of Nevada and an environmental group. “Consultation between the BLM, State of Nevada Commission for the Preservation of Wild Horses and the Sierra Club was conducted in November 2008. These groups toured the area proposed for the gather and jointly concurred that the gather was needed. The conclusion of the group was that the gather was needed to protect the natural resources as well as the wild horses.”

Wild horses up for adoption enter the Santa Clara County Horsemen’s Association arena in San Jose, California. (Photo courtesy BLM)

Government holding facilities now contain 32,000 wild horses that have been removed from the range, and the BLM intends to round up 12,000 more horses in FY 2010.

Downer, author of the book, “Wild Horses: Living Symbols of Freedom,” said in an editorial published by ENS in 2005, “These noble animals have done so much for humanity and for the rest of life over the ages and they should be protected as integral components of the public lands ecosystem here in America, their evolutionary cradle.”

He envisions the establishment of true wild horse and burro sanctuaries. “In these areas, livestock permittees should be phased out and natural predators, such as the puma, should be allowed to fulfill their age old ecological role. Natural barriers such as cliffs and mountains should be part of the design of these sanctuaries; and when necessary, artificial boundaries such as horse-proof fences could be installed to keep the wild equids out of harm’s way, protecting them from humans, cars, gardens, and agricultural areas.”

“Adequate water rights must also be established so that the natural springs in these areas are not monopolized by the ranchers or developers. Neither should miners be allowed to contaminate the waters,” Downer said.

“These sanctuaries will be magnificent regions of America where the returned native horse has been restored and allowed to enhance the native ecosystem, or life community, while keeping wildfires in check through the consumption of nutrient poor, flammable grasses, herbs and shrubs that equids are digestively equipped to handle,” he said.

Downer believes that the public will pay to view these animals, even from a distance. Ecotourism, limited to protect the horses’ natural life patterns, would make “cruel helicopter roundups and corralling” a thing of the past, he says.

Ecotourism focused on wild horse viewing would boost the Western economy, said Downer, who lives in Nevada. “No enormous subsidies will be needed here, as is currently the case with the public land’s livestock industry,” he said, adding, “Then the true intent of the Wild Horse Act will be realized.”

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