Friends of Animals at forefront of battle to protect wild horses


The Norwalk Hour Staff Writer

DARIEN — An international animal rights organization headquartered in Darien is fighting to halt the roundup of wild horses on federal lands in Wyoming and other Western states.

Last week, representatives of Friends of Animals returned from Riverton, Wyo., where they protested the policy before the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board.

“I do think feel that going out to Wyoming made a difference and gave the group that advises on national policy for wild horses something to think about, because we said what other people think but are afraid to say,” said Nicole Rivard, correspondent for Friends of Animals. “Our message was clear: the BLM needs to lower the number of livestock on public lands, not wild horses, and stop being bullied by ranchers.”

Edita Birnkrant, Friends of Animals campaigns director, described the wild horse roundups as “morally and ecologically reprehensible.” 

Priscilla Ferel, Friends of Animals president, said the protest was intended to “turn up the heat” on the BLM.

“The BLM needs to be reorganized. It cannot be the agenda of people using public lands at very little cost,” Ferel said.

Friends of Animals was among a number of advocacy groups to attend the advisory board meeting at Central Wyoming College in Riverton on Aug. 25 as the board discussed the management of wild horses and burros on Western public rangelands.

Rivard, who said she's loved horses since she was 10 years old, and other horse advocates held banners with messages such as “BLM + Ranchers = Thieves” and “Stop Stealing Wild Horses from Public Lands.”

The protest came as the BLM prepares to round up 800 to 950 wild horses from the Wyoming Checkerboard — a 1.2 million acre area containing public and private lands.

The horse removal, BLM officials say, comes at the request of private landowners and as the result of a court consent decree stemming from the Rock Springs Grazing Association's claim that wild horses have strayed onto private lands.

“What's different about this particular roundup is it's the result of a consent decree,” said Tom Gorey, BLM spokesman. “We worked out a legally binding agreement with the Rock Springs Grazing Association. This is a particularly difficult section of land to manage because of the checkerboard of private and public lands.”

The area is home to 356,222 cattle, 45,206 sheep and 1,912 wild horses, according to BLM data cited by Friends of Animals.

The BLM recently delayed the roundup due to a lawsuit and temporary restraining order filed with U.S. District Court in Wyoming, but plans to proceed after Sept. 1.

“BLM continues to prepare for removal operations to start sometime after September 1,” said Shelley Gregory at the BLM Field Office in Wyoming. “However, until the issue is resolved in the courts, we can't definitely say what the start date will be.”

On Thursday, a federal judge denied the request to block the roundup. The advocacy groups have filed an appeal with a federal appeals court in Denver, and Friends of Animals plans to return to Wyoming if the roundup proceeds.

The original lawsuit, filed by wild horse advocacy groups Aug. 1, alleges that the BLM violated numerous federal acts set up to protect wild horses.

Friends of Animals and The Cloud Foundation, a similar organization dedicated to the preservation of wild horses, have petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list North American wild horses on public lands as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

The BLM rejects as “myths” claims that the horse roundups are excessive or inhumane, or that the horses are kept in crowded “holding pens.”

“The BLM's short-term holding corrals provide ample space to horses, along with clean feed and water, while long-term holding pastures — large ranches located primarily in Kansas and Oklahoma — permit the horses to roam freely on approximately 289,000 acres of grassland,” according to a 'Myths and Facts' sheet prepared by the BLM.

Wild horse advocates disagree.

After the advisory board meeting on Aug. 25, Rivard and others drove to the Rock Springs area of Wyoming and witnessed wild horses roaming freely and afterward horses kept in holding facilities.

“(In the wild) they have family units and relationships that people don't think about and then when they get rounded up it's like tearing a family apart,” Rivard said. In the holding facility “they're fed but their manes are all knotted and there's that light missing from their eyes.”

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.