A federal court has ordered the Bureau of Land Management( BLM) to take a hard look at the impacts associated with its 2016 emergency roundup of almost all of the horses—155— from Oregon’s Three Fingers Herd Management Area (HMA) after a brush fire in the northern portion.

On Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Simon ruled that the BLM didn’t properly look at the environmental impacts associated with removing all of those horses and has ordered the agency to go back and comply with the National Environmental Protection Act. Although the court cannot order BLM to put the horses back on federal public lands, the court can and did require BLM to analyze whether it may be able to return the horses after the HMA recovers. The ruling follows a significant victory by FoA earlier this year regarding the BLM’s actions with this herd. 

“While we will not be satisfied until the horses are returned to the Wild Horse Basin Pasture to roam free, this is still a significant victory for wild horses,” said Courtney McVean, an attorney for FoA’s Wildlife Law Program. “The BLM is now required to analyze whether or not returning horses may have a significant environmental impact, and that’s important. As a result of the court’s order, the next step is to keep a close eye on BLM and make sure it fulfills its obligations. We want to be sure they do not do something nefarious like lower the appropriate management level or shrink the borders of the HMA.”

When Friends of Animals filed its 2016 lawsuit, we were well aware of the fact that the most widely-used method of avoiding laws meant to protect the environment and wildlife is through the use of so-called “emergency action.” Since the summer of 2016, BLM has engaged in numerous wild horse round-ups by claiming some sort of imminent threat to horses. While in some cases risks are present to the horses, BLM is merely using the situation as an excuse to permanently remove horses from the land without complying with the law.

“While it is certainly the right thing to do to protect horses during and immediately after a wild fire, using the fire as an excuse to zero out a population is inexcusable,” added Michael Harris, director of FoA’s Wildlife Law Program. “We are happy that the court agreed that BLM cannot use its so-called emergency power to avoid looking at the long-term problem of leaving this area potentially horseless. The miniscule number of horses left on the HMA, approximately 61, are in danger of losing their genetic viability.”