A federal appeals court ruled May 17 that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wrongly refused to review Friends of Animals’ bid to include Montana’s Pryor Mountain wild horse herd—made famous by Cloud, a white palomino stallion featured in documentaries—on the country’s list of imperiled species because its refusal hinged on a rule that is inconsistent with the Endangered Species Act.

“This moves the Pryor Mountain wild horse into queue for full and fair consideration under the ESA,” said Michael Harris, general counsel, director of FoA’s Wildlife Law Program. “The red warning flag of extinction is flying on the Pryor Mountain wild horse range. There are a scarce 170 left on 27,000 acres after years of the Bureau of Land Management taking away mares’ ability to reproduce by forcibly drugging them with a fertility pesticide and years of yanking so-called ‘excess’ horses off the land to be part of an adoption scheme.”

FoA petitioned FWS in 2017, stating Pryor Mountain mustangs’ lineage can be traced back to ancient horses who first evolved in North America and Eurasia, but are thought to have temporarily gone extinct following the last Ice Age, before being reintroduced by Spanish settlers. The Old Spanish genetic lineage has since been lost in Spain due to domestic breeding.

The Pryor Mountain mustangs often have primitive markings, indicative of this Old Spanish genetic lineage, or any lineage traceable to early horses. These markings include zebra striping on their legs and dark striping down their backs and withers. Dun coloration and primitive markings are attributable to a gene traceable to ancient horses.

In 2018 FoA challenged FWS’ rejection of its petition. On Monday, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Portland said that, contrary to a lower court’s earlier ruling, the FWS violated the ESA when it rejected FoA’s petition to list the Pryor Mountain horse on grounds the group had not, per a 2016 “pre-file notice” rule, first notified states where the animal lives.

U.S. District Judge John Tunheim said the pre-file notice rule creates a “procedural hurdle” that undercuts the ESA’s conservation goals.

“This decision also represents a first step, and hopefully not the last, of undoing the significant damage that has been done to the Endangered Species Act over the past four years under the Trump administration,” Harris said.

“If the BLM is allowed to eviscerate the beloved Cloud’s family and strip them of their legal rights despite ferocious public opposition, then what hope is there for any of America’s wild horses?” added Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals. “We are bolstered by the judge’s decision to give the Pryor Mountain horses a chance at survival.”