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Wild Horse Litigation

The Wildlife Law Program of Friends of Animals focuses on the defense of wildlife and their habitats throughout the world. Attorneys with the Wildlife Law Program utilize a variety of environmental laws to promote the rights of wildlife, including the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Administrative Procedure Act, and international treaties like the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Our current wild horse litigation includes these actions:

FoA sues BLM over 10-year plans designed to avoid scrutiny of wild horse extinction scheme

Friends of Animals is in court fighting for a more informed and transparent management of wild horses. Decisions about wild horses should take into account public opinion and the latest scientific information, not just politics of the agency.

Friends of Animals brought a lawsuit after the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) started issuing decisions that essentially gave the agency unfettered discretion to round up wild horses for a decade into the future. These plans essentially eliminate public input and oversight of how the BLM manages wild horses.

This is an agency that has a long history of mismanaging wild horses and catering to destructive industries that see wild horses as a roadblock to money-making ventures on public lands. For decades, the BLM has ignored science to justify its wild horse eradication efforts. As the Governmental Accountability Office declared back in 1990, “Despite congressional direction, BLM’S decisions on how many wild horses to remove from federal rangelands have not been based on direct evidence that existing wild populations exceed what the range can support.” In 2013, the National Academy of Science stated, “How Appropriate Management Levels [for wild horse herds] are established, monitored, and adjusted is not transparent to stakeholders, supported by scientific information, or amenable to adaptation with new information and environmental and social change.” BLM merely stuck its head in the sand and asked for more money and discretion to round up wild horses.

This did not go unnoticed by Friends of Animals. We filed a lawsuit in August of 2018 in the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. challenging four of the Bureau of Land Management’s 10-year management plans that authorize fertility control and ongoing, multiple roundups and removals of wild horses from six herd management areas (HMAs): Nevada’s Pine Nut Mountain, Eagle, Chokecherry, and Mt. Elinor HMAs; and Utah’s Muddy Creek and Onaqui Mountain HMAs.

“It is no coincidence that the move toward these 10-year plans, which don’t require roundup-specific analysis or new data or engage the public, comes on the heels of the agency’s May 25, 2018 decision to sell off dozens of horses to get around a Congressional ban on slaughter,” said Michael Harris, director of Friends of Animals Wildlife Law Program.

“BLM desires to take this type of long-range, but short-sighted, approach to manage wild horses for nearly all herd management areas to avoid further scrutiny of its overall plan to virtually zero out wild horse populations on public lands.”

In its current lawsuit, FoA states that in issuing these decisions, which authorize the continued roundups of wild horses for 10 years, BLM has disregarded its statutory and regulatory obligation to undertake roundup-specific analysis of the horses and their habitat. The BLM is also ignoring its responsibility to ensure public participation in such decisions.

It also states that in adopting these plans, BLM has significantly increased the likelihood that future wild horse removals and fertility control treatments will be based on obsolete forage data and outdated appropriate management level data.

Adding insult to injury, both plans conclude that PZP contraception appears to be temporary and reversible. However there are several studies demonstrating that fertility control treatments may cause irreversible sterility in mares as well as out-of-season births, herd instability and general decline in immune function.

BLM is proposing similar long-term roundup plans in several other herd management areas in other states.

“The BLM felt more emboldened than ever because of the Trump administration to completely disregard the Wild Horse and Burro Act, which requires the agency to protect and manage wild free-roaming horses in a manner that is designed to achieve and maintain a thriving, natural ecological balance on public lands,” said Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals.

“The only thing the Trump administration cared about was courting oil and gas drillers and selling off public lands, and the only thing the BLM cares about is treating ranchers as clients. It’s a deadly combination for wild horses on public lands and we won’t stand by and do nothing.

Unfortunately, so far the new administration has done nothing to change the course of the path to extinction that was put into place.”

FoA files lawsuit to suspend BLM’s adoption program after it sent wild horses to slaughter

Friends of Animals filed a lawsuit in May 2021 to suspend the Bureau of Land Management’s Wild Horse and Burro $1,000-a-head Adoption Incentive Program because it creates a pipeline to slaughter for thousands of federally protected wild horses. This is in direct opposition to the program’s requirements and inconsistent with the Wild Horse and Burro Act of 1971.

“The WHBA was passed to protect the role of wild horses in maintaining the ecological balance of public lands. BLM being caught red-handed treating wild horses like garbage and betraying them during the 50th anniversary of the passing of the WHBA is a national disgrace,” said Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals. “For decades, the BLM has prioritized commercializing federal public lands over wild horses. It’s time for new policies that actually protect wild horses.”

Despite the terms of the AIP contract, an article published by The New York Times on May 15, 2021, revealed that wild horses and burros were dumped at slaughter auctions as soon as the adopters obtained full payment and title to the animals from the government.

“The latest incentive program, implemented in 2019, is a blatant violation of Congress’ mandate that BLM ensure wild horses are not sent to slaughter,” said Michael Harris, director of Friends of Animals Wildlife Law Program. “In revising its adoption policy, BLM failed to follow the procedural requirements of the National Environmental Protection Act and the Administrative Procedures Act hoping to avoid public scrutiny of a faulty program that removed any safeguard to prevent the horses from certain death.”

If FoA wins the lawsuit, the agency will be forced to suspend the adoption program indefinitely and to do a proper NEPA analysis.

FoA’s lawsuit states BLM never analyzed how the new adoption incentive program would work and failed to police where the horses go and what happens to them afterwards. Furthermore, the adoption scheme incentivizes more roundups because the agency needs an ongoing supply of horses. It also allows the BLM to stick its head in the sand when it comes to considering alternatives that would better protect wild horses on the range.

This is not the first time BLM has failed to do its job. The Department of the Interior Office Inspector General released a report on Oct. 23, 2015, outlining its investigation of the agency’s sale of approximately 1,700 wild horses from 2008 through 2012 to a single rancher that resulted in them being sent to slaughter.

FoA wins lawsuit requiring FWS to consider ESA protections for beloved Pryor Mountain wild horses

A federal appeals court ruled May 17, 2021 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 horses 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 May 17, 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 done to the Endangered Species Act during the Trump administration,” Harris said.

FoA files lawsuit against BLM for its assault on California’s wild horses

Friends of Animals filed a lawsuit in November of 2019 against the Bureau of Land Management for its decision to reduce the size and slow the growth of California’s Twin Peaks wild horse herd. The 10-year plan calls for several detestable approaches, including rounding up by helicopter-drive trapping and bait-and-water trapping, as well as fertility control and castration to reduce the herd to the low end of its so-called appropriate management level of 448 wild horses on approximately 800,000 acres.

“The scope of this 10-year decision is unprecedented in this area and authorizes rounding up and removing more than 80 percent of the wild horses from the Twin Peaks Herd Management Area as well as castrating an undisclosed number of stallions,” explained Jennifer Best, assistant legal director for FoA. “With these long-range plans, BLM is trying to avoid further scrutiny of its overall plan to zero out wild horse populations on public lands and Friends of Animals will not stand by and do nothing.”

Adding insult to injury, 1,060 cattle and 13,000 sheep can graze in the Twin Peaks grazing allotment.

“BLM keeps trying to paint wild horses as an abundant population that is damaging to our public lands, when the culprits are doomed cattle and sheep,” Best said. “This decision shows how BLM is once again putting the interest of ranchers ahead of a balanced ecosystem that includes wild horses and other wild animals.”

The 10-year decision was issued pursuant to a new rule that eliminates the opportunity for the public to review or comment on the BLM’s decisions. The changes not only drastically alter the way BLM is managing horses in the Twin Peaks area, they also violate the law in several respects, the lawsuit states.

First, the decision violates the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act requirement that BLM make a determination that such animals are in excess before removing wild horses and burros, that removal is necessary and that such determination be based on current information; violates BLM’s obligations to conduct management activities at the minimal feasible level; and violates its obligations under NEPA to: (1) prepare an environmental impact statement, (2) consider reasonable alternatives, and (3) fully evaluate the impacts and alternatives to the proposed decisions.

Furthermore, the BLM issued the new rule in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act because it didn’t provide the public notice of the new rule before implementing it, solicit comments on the new rule as required by the APA or offer a reasonable explanation for the rule change.

“BLM’s decision thwarts public participation and puts BLM on a path to continually harass wild horses and burros behind closed doors for the next 10 years,” Best said. “Friends of Animals hopes the lawsuit puts an end to this criminal practice and holds BLM accountable to the public and to its legal obligation to protect America’s wild horses and burros.”