A massive roundup of wild horses along the California-Nevada border was lawful, according to a federal appeals court.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management acted within its authority in gathering nearly 1,800 wild horses and burros, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled.
While the BLM is required by federal law to protect wild horses, the agency is also “required to remove wild horses and burros from a given area of the public lands when an overpopulation exists,” according to the 2-1 decision of the 9th Circuit judicial panel.
The ruling pertains to a 2010 roundup of wild horses and burros in the 800,000-acre Twin Peaks Herd Management Area, which includes public and private land.
At the time, the wild horse population topped 2,300 animals, roughly triple the maximum allowable level as determined by BLM.
The 282 burros in the area also far exceeded the population level recommended by the agency.
During two months in the summer of 2010, the BLM rounded up 1,639 horses and 160 burros.
In Defense of Animals, a nonprofit group, and other wild horse advocates filed a complaint against BLM, alleging the environmental conditions weren’t degraded enough to justify the roundup.
The 9th Circuit rejected this argument, ruling that the BLM must preserve the natural ecological balance and prevent over-grazing.
“Preservation efforts can hardly require prior destruction of what is to be preserved,” the ruling said.
The appellate court also dismissed the argument that BLM should have first euthanized sick animals before conducting a larger roundup.
The agency is allowed to temporarily gather wild horses before it decides which animals will be euthanized, removed or returned to the area, the 9th Circuit said.
The BLM also properly determined that an extensive environmental study of the roundup wasn’t required, the ruling said.
Circuit Judge Johnnie Rawlinson dissented from the opinion, finding that BLM isn’t permitted to gather excess and non-excess horses for later sorting.
“Therefore, no legitimate basis existed for cavalierly chasing the horses with helicopters for miles before capturing them, including horses that were admittedly non-excess,” she said.
Rachel Fazio, attorney for the plaintiffs, said they were hoping to have the wild horses returned to the area from holding facilities.
The plaintiffs also wanted the 9th Circuit to rein in the BLM, which acts with “no check on its authority” in managing wild horses, despite the requirements of federal law, she said in an email.
“A disappointing day for wild horses, to be sure,” Fazio said.