Nevada horse gather on hold

Dec 4, 2009
Nevada horse gather on hold

A major wild horse gather in the Calico Mountain and Black Rock Desert area in northern Nevada, originally scheduled for Dec. 1, has been postposed until the 28th following the joint filing of a lawsuit against the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) by In Defense of Animals (IDA) and ecologist Craig Downer. IDA and Downer have also filed for a permanent injunction, requesting that Judge Paul L. Friedman of the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia prevent the gather entirely.

“We welcome this moratorium on the capture and inhumane treatment of the Calico horses,” said William Spriggs, Esq. of Buchanan, Ingersoll and Rooney, pro bono attorney for IDA and Downer. “The BLM plan for a massive helicopter roundup of these horses is entirely illegal.”

“We are confident that the court will agree that America’s wild horses are protected by law from BLM’s plan to indiscriminately chase and stampede them into corrals for indeterminate warehousing away from their established habitat,” he said. “The magnificent wild horses and burros of the American West are an important part of our national heritage and must be preserved.”

The Calico Mountain Complex, which lies in the northwestern corner of Nevada, consists of five wild horse management areas (HMAs): East Black Rock, West Black Rock, Warm Springs, Granite, and Calico Mountain.

The complex has a current estimated population of 3,095 wild horses. However, the BLM-established appropriate management level (AML) for wild horses on the Calico Complex is only between 572 and 952 horses.

BLM officials are hoping to remove around 2,500 horses in the upcoming gather.

At three to five times the appropriate level, the wild horse population on the Complex has significantly passed the established limit. According to Alan Shepherd, Nevada program lead for the BLM wild horse program, a gather was completed off of the Calico Complex five years ago. At that time, BLM thought that the number of horses had been brought down to the low end of the prescribed AML: 572 head. Population estimates, however, turned out to have been based on inadequate inventories. A recount in March of ’08 revealed horses numbering in excess of 2,000.

Says Shepherd, “We’re hoping to remove about 2,500 horses. That’s the best we can do, probably. We need to have a gather efficiency of over 85 percent of the population in order to achieve the AML range.”

Despite the extensive overpopulation of horses on the Calico Complex HMAs, the lawsuit aims to prevent BLM from conducting the gather, which will also prevent them from achieving their AML standards. Suzanne Roy, program director for IDA, explained that the lawsuit has been filed to prevent the roundup because it is perceived to be both unlawful and inherently inhumane. Roy explained that according to advice from IDA’s legal counsel, “the mass roundup of horses is not authorized by any act of Congress, and is therefore illegal.” Roy continued, “It is (counsel’s) conclusion that there is nothing in the statutes that allows for gathers and removal of horses from the range,” and that wild horse gathers “violate the mandate in the (Wild Free- Roaming Horse and Burro) Act that requires the humane treatment and minimally invasive management of the wild horses.”

In particular, IDA views the use of helicopters as inherently cruel to the wild horses, claiming that they cause terror, exhaustion from causing horses to run over long distances, and sometimes death.

IDA’s positive vision for wild horse management would see BLM focus its resources on the range management of the horses, and eliminate the removal of horses from the range. Roy indicated that IDA would like to see BLM refocus its efforts on “monitoring horses, population dynamics, and range improvements.” In particular, Roy specified that the BLM energies would be well spent on the development of water resources. She added, “We would also like to see the BLM limit or eliminate livestock grazing in the horse management areas.”

Population control, “when necessary,” could be managed with immunocontraceptives, said Roy. When asked whether gathers wouldn’t be necessary for the application of immunocontraceptives, Roy said she “was not willing to concede that a roundup is necessary” for this purpose. When asked how the immunocontraceptives might otherwise be administered, Roy deferred to answer specifically, but suggested that darts might be effective.

According to Shepherd, BLM is also interested in using fertility control as a means of containing the wild horse population, which increases by approximately 20 percent annually. However, BLM views fertility control as one component of a broader management program, which will also require removal of excess horses from the range. Explains Shepherd, “It would be nearly impossible to control this population (exclusively) with fertility control given the numbers that they’re at. There is no way it could be brought down to AML just using fertility control. We’re still considering using it, but we need to reduce the population size.”

Shepherd disagreed with the IDA claim that the use of helicopters is inhumane and constitutes overstepping the boundaries of “minimal management,” noting that their speed and efficiency cut down on the time that the horses are being moved and processed.

“Based on the effectiveness of the helicopter gathers and the ability of the pilots, we feel that the helicopter removals are a safe and humane way to gather wild horses,” remarked Shepherd. “There is an elevated level of anxiety when the helicopter is herding them, but they calm down from that very quickly.”

“We use the minimal management activities in order to reach the objectives of the AML. Adjusting sex ratios, and fertility control are being considered as a management action, but we have to be able to achieve AML first.”

Shepherd was also skeptical about IDA’s claims that there was no legal provision for wild horse gathers. “The ’71 law requires us to manage at AML,” said Shepherd.

“It specifically requires us to do that, and to remove excess animals. The use of helicopters and motorized vehicles was later added to the act, for counting (and) for removals.”

BLM has voluntarily chosen to postpone the gather until the 28th as they prepare to present their case.

“We delayed the gather in order to allow this litigation to work through before we start. It was a voluntary action, not a court order,” says Shepherd. “We are reviewing their points, their concerns, and their comments.

We will address them as necessary for the court.”

The gather, however, is scheduled to proceed on the 28th provided no injunction is issued by the court. Says Shepherd, “We will go ahead on the 28th unless we get told by the court that we can’t. That is our desired start date.”

Asked whether IDA plans to protest the gather if it is allowed to proceed, Roy responded, “We are hopeful and optimistic that the judge will agree with the merits of our case. We’re optimistic about our chances in court.” — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent