Judge rules to allow Bureau of Land Management wild-horse roundup to resume in Nevada
RENO, Nev. — A government roundup of wild horses can resume in Nevada, a judge ruled Friday, dealing a setback to animal rights activists who had hoped to halt it after 13 mustangs died.
Federal land managers hailed U.S. District Judge Larry Hicks' order, warning that more than 500 horses in northern Elko County could die of dehydration in the next week if the roundup didn't continue. On Wednesday, Hicks issued an emergency order stopping the roundup.
U.S. Bureau of Land Management spokesman Doran Sanchez said that the condition of the horses was "deteriorating rapidly" and that the roundup would resume Saturday morning. BLM officials blame the deaths on the drought and not the roundup.
"We have a major crisis here, and given the critical condition the animals are in, we could lose a lot of animals," Sanchez said. "Our main goal is to save as many animals as possible given the extreme emergency conditions."
But activists have expressed outrage over the roundup, saying the deaths were predictable, given the hot summer temperatures and the weakened state of foals and the mares that recently gave birth or were about to do so.
In her lawsuit seeking a temporary restraining order halting the roundup, horse advocate and author Laura Leigh of Minden argues that the BLM violated its own policy not to conduct helicopter roundups until at least six weeks after peak foaling season ends. She said she has doubts about the BLM's explanation of the situation.
"This judge doesn't want to have dead horses on his head and heart, and I understand that," Leigh said.
The BLM suspended the roundup last weekend when seven horses died of dehydration and water intoxication after being herded by helicopter on the first day. Five other horses have since died of similar causes. Another horse broke a leg and was put down.
The BLM has hauled more than 12,000 gallons of water to various sites in the roundup area, but the horses have not been drinking it and the agency doesn't know why, Sanchez said.
"We'll try to do everything in our power to care for animals we save or humanely euthanize any animals that are down and suffering. We'll do what's necessary," Sanchez said.
The 228 horses gathered last weekend were among up to 1,200 mustangs the agency intends to remove from the range in the area. The BLM plans to make them available for adoption or send them to long-term holding facilities in the Midwest.
BLM officials say the roundups are necessary because the mustang population is growing so rapidly that the animals are running out of food and harming the range and native wildlife. Activists say the agency is removing the mustangs to make room for livestock grazing and other interests.
Hicks ruled in favor of Leigh's request for access to observe the roundup, saying the BLM's blanket closure of 42 square miles of public land while it takes place is unconstitutional because it prevents the public from observing the roundup.
The BLM plans to comply with Hicks' order to provide access to Leigh and other activists and is working out details, Sanchez said.
"We will be setting up areas where people will be able to go and we'll be offering observation days," he said.
Leigh's videotape of an injured foal being chased by a helicopter across the range in another roundup in Nevada over the winter was a YouTube hit. The foal was among 104 mustangs that died in the Calico Mountains Complex roundup, with the vast majority of the deaths occurring after they were sent to a holding facility in Fallon.
"A free press is vital to the system of government accountability in a democratic society," Leigh said.
BLM managers estimate that roughly 38,000 mustangs and burros roam 10 Western states, and half are in Nevada. The agency is removing about 12,000 animals to bring their numbers down to what it considers an appropriate management level.
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At home on the range (January 2010 opinion article by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar)
-- Martin Griffith, Associated Press
Photo: The Bureau of Land Management uses a helicopter to gather 251 wild horses from the Lahontan Herd Management Area in Nevada in 2004. Credit: Lisa J. Tolda / Associated Press