A federal judge has ruled the U.S. Bureau of Land Management violated environmental law by rounding up wild horses in Eastern Oregon after a 2016 fire.
Friends of Animals, a nonprofit group that filed a lawsuit against BLM, has sought to overturn the agency’s approval of the roundup, which could lead to some horses being returned to the Three Fingers Management Area in Malheur County.
The BLM initially conducted an environmental assessment on gathering and removing wild horses from the 62,500-acre area in 2011, but then decided on a smaller-scale roundup in 2016.
Shortly before the operation was set to begin in August 2016, however, the Cherry Road wildfire ignited in the area, burning about 15,000 acres of pasture — roughly half the range used by wild horses in the management area.
While the planned roundup was canceled due to the fire, BLM soon decided to conduct an “emergency gather” due to the lost forage and limited water sources for the animals.
Under the emergency gather, the BLM approved removing 150 horses — up from about 50 before the fire occurred — leaving about 80 to 120 in the area.
Friends of Animals alleged the emergency action “went far beyond what was necessary to control the immediate impacts” of the fire without a proper review under the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA.
Instead of permanently removing the horses, BLM could have examined “relocation, temporary removal, fencing and providing supplemental water” to mitigate the fire’s immediate effects, the group argued.
U.S. District Judge Michael Simon has found that BLM’s emergency gather went further than necessary to counter the fire’s immediate impacts, requiring additional analysis under NEPA.
“Its stated rationale for conducting the gather was not just to control the immediate effects of the fire, but to ensure survival of the horses over the next two seasons, and aid in the habitat’s recovery,” he said.
The BLM claimed the emergency action met that requirement because it was based on reviews conducted for the previous roundup decisions and other plans for the region.
However, the judge disagreed that BLM took the necessary “hard look” at the emergency gather’s environmental consequences, since the agency didn’t analyze the effects of the fire itself or why it was necessary to remove more horses.
“The Emergency Gather Decision does not discuss whether there are any new circumstances, information, or effects not previously analyzed since the earlier NEPA documents,” he said.
While the approval was “arbitrary and capricious” contrary to the law, the judge said he will separately deliberate on the appropriate remedy for this violation.
Lucinda Bach, attorney for the government in this case, said she couldn’t comment on the ruling. Capital Press was unable to reach an attorney from Friends of Animals for comment.