Lawsuit Seeks To Prevent Wild Horse Gathers

The Wild Horse Freedom Federation (WHFF) has taken another step towards the humane treatment of mustangs. On August 24, 2011 they filed a lawsuit and a temporary restraining order against the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) regarding gathers the BLM has been performing. The BLM intended to gather 4,651 horses between January 1 and September 30 of this year, with most of the roundups occurring between July and September. The gathers cover Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Oregon and Nevada.

The WHFF lawsuit specifically seeks to halt gathers in northwestern White Pine County and southern Elko County in Nevada. In Nevada alone, 1,687 horses would be gathered, of which only 108 would be returned to the wild.

Advocates for the wild horses believe that these gathers are inhumane. The BLM uses helicopters to herd the horses; after they have initially gathered the mustangs, the helicopters fly between one quarter mile and one half mile behind the herd and let the horses move at their own pace until they near the holding pens.  The BLM holds that this is not detrimental to the horses, and that helicopters are more effective than horse riders at keeping mares and foals together as well as maneuvering the herds around large obstacles such as ravines or roads. The direct mortality rate for horses being moved this way is typically less than one percent.

While the use of helicopters to herd mustangs is a problem for some (they fly too close to the horses), it is the treatment of horses after they have been gathered that is drawing most of the criticism this time. After the horses are gathered they are kept in holding pens where they do not have sufficient water and are improperly fed. Laura Leigh, the plaintiff in the case, has personally witnessed a number of roundups over the past 18 months and has seen these behaviors repeated time and again. She stated that after seeing the horses in their natural habitat, seeing how they are treated in roundups is “a direct blow to your soul”.

Gathers are part of the BLM mission to protect resources on the range, while ensuring that the land is available for a variety of uses that are developed in a public forum. Wild horses do fit into this plan, but not at their current population. There are currently around 38,500 mustangs and burros on the range, and the BLM is seeking to reduce this to a more ideal population of around 26,600 – the land is able to support that many horses. To determine this the BLM divides the land into Herd Management Areas, which each have a specific number of horses they can support; the BLM gathers horses when they have exceeded that population.

Once the horses are gathered, a number of things may happen to them. They may be sent to long term pastures or put up for adoption. Private citizens take care of the horse or burro for one year, at which point they take over ownership from the government. Finally, some of the mustangs will be released back into the wild. The BLM sterilizes some of the mares to prevent them from having colts, an additional effort at population control.

This is not the first time mustangs have been the subject of a legal debate. In May of this year, Nevada lawmakers were mulling over a bill which would have stated that wild horses and burros are not legally considered “wildlife”, which would have stripped the animals of their water rights. The Feral Horse Committee claimed that the horses were drinking water that was meant to sustain wildlife. While the mustangs are protected under 1971s Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act, the bill that would strip them of wildlife status passed in the House and moved on to the state Senate before it was turned down.

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