By SCOTT SONNER
RENO, Nev. (AP) -- Horse protection advocates claimed a rare legal victory in their larger effort to end federal roundups of free-roaming mustangs on public lands in the West on Wednesday when a judge denied the government's motion to dismiss their lawsuit alleging the gathers are illegal.
U.S. District Judge Morrison England Jr. ruled in Sacramento that In Defense of Animals and others can move forward with their lawsuit accusing the U.S. Bureau of Land Management of violating laws protecting the animals on the range when they gathered more than 1,700 horses and burros near the California-Nevada line last year.
As it has in similar cases in the past, BLM argued the suit is moot and should be dismissed because the last of the horses in the Twin Peaks horse management area were removed from the range in September.
But in what the horse advocates say is a precedent-setting decision, the judge ruled the case is not moot because "effective relief can still be granted" if the plaintiffs prove BLM violated the National Environmental Policy Act or the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act.
"Assuming each of the plaintiffs allegations are true, this court could conceivably provide relief in the form of an order returning all animals in short-term and long-term holding facilities to either Twin Peaks or the West until all requirements of NEPA are met," Morrison said.
"Further, this court could issue an order compelling (BLM) to fully comply with NEPA requirements for all future gathers," he wrote.
The agency maintains the roundups are necessary to thin overpopulated herds causing ecological damage to the rangeland that serves as critical habitat for numerous species across much of the West, including sage grouse.
Morrison earlier denied the horse advocates' bid for a temporarily restraining order to block the roundup before it began last fall in the extreme northeast corner of California. The critics said in their lawsuit the gather was illegal partly because there has been no discussion or consideration of removing some of the 10,000-plus cattle and sheep currently grazing on the Twin Peaks HMA.
An appeal of that ruling still is pending before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
But Morrison indicated in his ruling Wednesday the question of whether the overall lawsuit challenging the legality of the roundups is separate from the part of the lawsuit that sought to specifically block the Twin Peaks gather.
Eric Kleiman, research director for the San Francisco-based In Defense of Animals, said it means that rather than have the case dismissed on "technicalities," they will for the first time have a chance to address the merits of their arguments that the BLM has no legal right to remove the horses from their natural, native habitat on the range.
"This is a groundbreaking legal decision that could lead to America's wild horses finally having their day in court," he said.
"It's actually rather shocking," added Rachel Fazio, a lawyer for the plaintiffs who also include the Dreamcatcher Wild Horse and Burro Sanctuary. "Pretty much every other time the courts have said it is moot."
BLM officials in Reno and Washington, D.C., did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Agency officials said earlier this year that an estimated 33,000 wild horses roam freely in 10 Western states, about half of those in Nevada. An additional 36,000 horses are cared for in government-funded holding facilities. BLM maintains that the horse population would double every four years if not for the roundup of about 10,000 annually.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.