By MARTIN GRIFFITH
RENO, Nev. (AP) -- A coalition of conservationists and wild-horse activists is suing the government to block its implementation of a precedent-setting plan to castrate hundreds of wild stallions in eastern Nevada.
The lawsuit, filed by the Western Watersheds Project, the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign and the Cloud Foundation, follows the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's decision in July to back off a similar plan to castrate hundreds of wild stallions in Wyoming.
The suit, filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., challenges the BLM's plans to remove roughly 1,800 wild horses from the sprawling Pancake Complex near Ely over the next six to 10 years, and to castrate 200 wild stallions before releasing them back to the area as geldings.
The complaint contends the BLM's "scientifically unsound, controversial, untested and radical approaches" to managing mustangs in the 855,000-acre complex violate federal law, and the agency continues to authorize thousands of sheep and cattle to graze on public lands in the area.
"The BLM has violated the law by failing to analyze impacts of domestic livestock and wild horses," said Jon Marvel, executive director of the Idaho-based Western Watershed Project. "I hope this case ends once and for all BLM's illegal bias in favor of cattle and sheep over wild horses and all other native wildlife."
The BLM in July backed off a similar plan to release hundreds of castrated wild stallions back to the range in Wyoming after the same plaintiffs challenged it in court.
BLM spokeswoman JoLynn Worley said the agency views the pilot project as another way to reduce growing horse herds that are damaging rangelands to the detriment of native wildlife.
"That's one thing people always ask about, when they comment on this, whether we can try to do some birth control on stallions in addition to mares," Worley said. "We want to see if this will be one more way to reduce the number of horses and slow down the population."
The BLM plans to remove horses from the Pancake Complex in phases over the next six to 10 years because it lacks sufficient space in its holding facilities, Worley said. Plans call for a reduction in the complex's horse population from about 2,200 to 370 over that period.
"We don't have enough room in our holding facilities to bring in all of those numbers at once. So we're going to break it down into three to four gathers over six to 10 years to make the reductions," Worley said.
Activists have complained the agency's ongoing mass removal of mustangs from public lands has resulted in the stockpiling of horses in long-term facilities in the Midwest at growing taxpayer expense. Captured horses are put up for adoption, but sent to the government-funded facilities if they attract no owners.
There now are more horses in holding facilities -- 41,000 -- than free-roaming horses in 10 Western states -- 33,000. Over the 2011 fiscal year, holding costs accounted for nearly 50 percent of the BLM wild horse and burro program's $75.8 million budget. About half of the West's wild horses are in Nevada.
"After four decades of mismanagement, it's time to draw a line in the sand," said Ginger Kathrens, executive director of the Colorado-based Cloud Foundation. "The agency's policy of destroying America's wild horse herds for the benefit of the livestock industry must come to an end."
But BLM officials maintain public rangelands are not able to withstand the impacts from overpopulated horse herds, which include soil erosion, sedimentation of streams and damage to wildlife habitat.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.