By MARTIN GRIFFITH
RENO, Nev. (AP) -- Federal land managers have agreed to postpone a precedent-setting plan to castrate hundreds of wild stallions in eastern Nevada pending a federal court's review of the issue.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management's decision came a week after a coalition of conservationists and wild-horse defenders sued the government in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., to block the plan's implementation.
Under a compromise reached by both sides and approved by the court Thursday, the agency will be allowed to begin a long-term removal of roughly 1,800 wild horses from the sprawling Pancake Complex near Ely beginning Jan. 12 as scheduled.
But the BLM agreed to put on hold until next July 1 its plan to castrate 200 wild stallions before releasing them back to the complex.
"That is supposed to give the court time to hear this case," BLM spokeswoman Heather Emmons told The Associated Press.
BLM officials said they view the pilot program as another way to reduce growing horse herds that are damaging western rangelands to the detriment of native wildlife.
In response to the lawsuit, the agency also agreed to drop its plan to remove all 100-plus mustangs in the Jakes Wash Herd Management Area within the 855,000-acre complex, Emmons said.
"We're not going to remove more than 50 percent of the horses in that area," she said.
The suit challenged the BLM's plan to "zero out" the Jakes Wash area for wild horses, while continuing to authorize thousands of sheep and cattle to graze the same public land there.
The plaintiffs also criticized the agency's plans to reduce the complex's horse population from about 2,200 to 360 over the next six to 10 years, and to replace 200 wild stallions with castrated males there over the same period.
"The proposed actions are precedent-setting and permanent in nature, and we firmly believe the court will find them in violation of the law," said attorney Katherine Meyer, who represents the plaintiffs. "The agency's agreement to delay these radical management actions will avoid the need to seek an emergency injunction over the holidays, and will allow the court time to review the considerable merits of our lawsuit."
The suit, filed Dec. 14 by the Western Watersheds Project, the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign and the Cloud Foundation, follows the BLM's decision in July to back off a similar plan to castrate hundreds of wild stallions in Wyoming.
BLM officials said they plan to remove horses from the Pancake Complex in phases over the next six to 10 years because the agency lacks sufficient space in its holding facilities.
Activists complain 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 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. Nevada is home to about half of the West's wild horses.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.