Lawsuit, wild horse management options

Dec 30, 2011

In the emotionally charged arena of wild horse management, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is finding it increasingly difficult to deploy all the population control tools at its disposal due to legal challenges by horse activists. Although sale without limitation and euthanasia were voluntarily “taken off the table” by BLM Director Bob Abbey as a means of controlling the rapidly growing wild horse population, a recent lawsuit filed by American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign (AWHPC) claims that the castration of stallions—which was planned for the upcoming Pancake Complex gather in Nevada—is also an inappropriate means of controlling wild horse numbers.

The 1,160,000-acre Pancake Complex, located in White Pine and Nye counties, comprises three separate areas where horses are managed. According to BLM data, it is estimated that the Pancake Complex currently has over 1,800 head of wild horses, while appropriate management level (AML) ranges from 361-638.

The environmental assessment (EA) for the gather indicated that

BLM will attempt to “reach AML over six-10 years by gradually removing excess animals, implementing fertility control, adjusting sex ratios, and managing a portion of the herd as non-reproducing geldings.”

According to AWHPC’s complaint filed Dec. 14 in District of Columbia U.S. District Court, the proposed castration of stallions “will irreparably disrupt and destroy the natural wild and freeroaming behavior of these horses, the social organization and viability of the herds to which they belong.”

The complaint also took issue with BLM’s decision to “zero out” the horse population from the 154,000-acre Jake’s Wash horse area, a component of the Pancake Complex, due to lack of forage and space. AWHPC alleges that livestock should be removed from the area instead to make more forage available for the horses.

“In choosing these scientifically unsound, controversial, untested, and radical approaches for the management of wild horses, the BLM has violated its obligation under the Wild Horse Act (WHA) to ‘protect and manage’ these ‘wild and freeroaming’ horses as ‘living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West,’” the complaint stated.

AWHPC accuses BLM of violating the WHA, as well as the National Environmental Policy Act and the Administrative Policy Act.

The case follows a similar suit filed last August by AWHPC, challenging a decision in Wyoming to castrate a number of wild stallions and return them to the wild as a non-reproducing herd. The Wyoming case was ruled moot after BLM withdrew its proposal to castrate the stallions.

Due to the present challenge, BLM has suspended its decision to geld stallions until the court has a chance to rule on the merits of the case.

According to syndicated columnist Pat Raia, BLM spokesman Chris Hanefeld indicated that BLM elected Dec. 21 to revise the gather plan in order to give the court time to make a determination.

“We agreed that this January we will gather not more than 50 percent of the Jakes Wash herd,” Hanefeld told Raia. “Also, we will not geld any horses this January.” All plans to castrate stallions have been shelved until July.

Hanefeld added that BLM will go forward as planned with the rest of the Pancake Complex gather, which is scheduled to begin Jan. 12, 2012.

“We’ll still gather the full number of excess horses—800 to 1,000—still implement the 60-40 sex ratio and apply the fertility control,” Hanefeld told Raia.

The presiding judge in the case has approved the agreement.

AWHPC attorney Katherine Meyer of Meyer, Glitzenstein and Crystal suggested that the agreement was also amenable to her client.

“The agency’s agreement to delay these radical management actions will avoid the need to seek an emergency injunction over the holidays,” Meyer told Raia.

AWHCP is joined in the suit by the Cloud Foundation, wildlife ecologist Craig Downer, photographer Arla Ruggles, and the Western Watersheds Project (WWP).

Although some environmental groups have supported BLM in its efforts to manage the wild horses, arguing that horses are nonnative and should be controlled to leave resources for native wildlife, WWP’s recent participation in wild horse litigation suggests that the Idaho-based group has taken a different angle on the issue. The complaint states that WWP’s interest in the preservation of natural habitats was harmed by BLM’s failing to consider the impacts of livestock grazing on the Jake’s Wash area, and failing to propose an alternative plan that called for reduction in grazing animal unit months, as opposed to zeroing out the horse herd.

BLM has hoped to use the Pancake Complex gather as part of a “pilot management alternative” that would use a “phased in approach” to achieving AML on the complex over a period of six-10 years. By gradually reaching AML as opposed to removing all excess horses at once, the hope is to reduce the expensive overstocking of short- and long-term holding facilities.

According to BLM, however, there is no question that the Pancake Complex needs to have its horse population substantially cut back. According to the EA, horses are already overspilling the boundaries of the horse management areas onto private land and land managed by other agencies.

“The gather is necessary to remove excess wild horses and bring the wild horse population back to within the established AML range in order to achieve and maintain a thriving natural ecological balance between wild horses and other natural uses,” BLM wrote in its EA.

Yet how and whether these goals are to be achieved without the use of castration remains an entirely open question. — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent