Federal appeals judge halts wild-horse roundup

RENO - A federal appeals judge on Friday night granted a temporary injunction to halt a government roundup of about 1,700 wild horses from the range in Nevada.

Judge Richard Paez of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued the order after U.S. District Judge Howard McKibben earlier in the day denied a motion to stop the federal Bureau of Land Management's removal of mustangs from public lands near the Utah line.

Paez's order will remain in effect until a three-judge panel on which he sits has a chance to review the horse advocacy group Cloud Foundation's emergency motion for injunctive relief pending resolution of the group's appeal of McKibben's ruling.

"To allow for further consideration on the merits of the emergency motion, the court grants temporary injunctive relief," Paez wrote in his order. "Appellees are enjoined from the roundup of wild horses in the ... (affected) areas until further order of the court."

BLM spokesman Doran Sanchez said the order was being reviewed by the agency's legal counsel and he could not comment further on it.

Attorney Rachel Fazio, who represents the Colorado-based Cloud Foundation, said she was pleased with Paez's order and can't recall such a BLM roundup being halted by the court for even a few days.

"This is pretty amazing. At some point I hope the judiciary will step in and enforce the law," Fazio told The Associated Press.

After McKibben's ruling was issued late Friday afternoon, BLM officials announced they would start the horse roundup Saturday morning in the sprawling Triple B Complex.

McKibben disagreed with the Cloud Foundation, which contends the roundup would violate the 1971 Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act because the BLM failed to prove the herds there are overpopulated and causing ecological harm to public rangeland.

The herds have grown by nearly 1,600 horses since the last roundup in the complex in July 2006, McKibben said, and the range and herd itself will suffer if the population continues to grow at a 20 to 25 percent annual rate without BLM intervention.

"Plaintiffs have failed to show that a gather of this magnitude is not warranted in order to protect the rangeland habitat and maintain a thriving, natural ecological balance," the Reno judge wrote. "The historical evidence before this court strongly supports the conclusion that the gather will benefit the horses rather than harm them, as fewer horses competing for limited resources will mean a healthier herd."

He noted the high-desert complex has scarce water sources and the BLM has hauled several truckloads of water to it since June for the mustangs.

After McKibben's ruling, Fazio immediately filed a motion asking the federal appeals court to intervene.

Sanchez said his agency has a mandate under the federal law to remove "excess" horses to sustain the health of herds, rangelands and wildlife, and the mustang population in the complex is five times greater than what the range can support.

The 1,700 horses targeted for roundup are among an estimated 2,200 that roam a series of horse management areas covering a total of 1.7 million acres southeast of Elko and northwest of Ely in eastern Nevada. BLM officials maintain the area can only sustain between 500 and 900 horses.

The lawsuit, filed by activists Craig Downer of Nevada and Lorna Moffat of California, as well as the Cloud Foundation, accuses the BLM of managing the land primarily for livestock and ignoring the federal law's directive to manage the land "devoted to mustangs and burros principally for their welfare."

But McKibben said changes to livestock grazing allotments must be made through a separate process outlined under the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.

"Because the public lands must be managed with multiple uses in mind, the court concludes that the BLM's decision to allocate the resources as it has done in this case is not arbitrary, capricious or contrary to law," he wrote, adding the 1971 federal law doesn't give horses priority over other species on the range.

The bureau annually removes thousands of horses from the range in the West and sends them to holding pens, where they are prepared for adoption or transfer to long-term corrals in the Midwest.

About 33,000 wild horses roam freely in 10 Western states, with about half the animals in Nevada. An additional 40,000 horses are kept in government-funded facilities.


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