RENO (AP) - The U.S. Bureau of Land Management plans to stage a winter roundup of wild horses from the range north of Reno after a similar gather in the same area resulted in the deaths of more than 100 mustangs last year.
Horse defenders who unsuccessfully sued to halt the earlier roundup before it began in January 2010 are criticizing the agency's latest plans to remove about 1,300 mustangs in the Tri-State-Calico Complex beginning in December.
They maintain winter roundups expose horses to the risk of respiratory illness, and the use of helicopters to drive horses to corrals is inhumane and risks their death.
"It's a no-brainer not to do a roundup like this in winter, especially after all the deaths that occurred in 2010," said Anne Novak of the Colorado-based horse advocacy group Cloud Foundation. "All the wild horses there are going to suffer."
But BLM officials say the winter is a better time to gather horses in such high-elevation, rocky terrain, and herds need to be thinned because of an overpopulation of the animals in the sprawling area northeast of Gerlach, about 110 miles north of Reno.
"Cold and snow do not affect horses to the degree that heat and dust would in summer months," BLM spokeswoman Lisa Ross said.
Moreover, Ross said, research shows the highest percentage of effectiveness for fertility-control treatments is the winter. The BLM plans to give the fertility-control drug PCP to 87 mares before releasing them back to the wild in the area.
The BLM removed about 1,900 horses from the Calico Mountains Complex in January 2010. The agency had planned to remove about 2,500 horses but stopped short of the goal due to winter conditions and mustangs moving out of the complex.
Ross confirmed seven horses died at the roundup site and at least 113 horses died after being transported to a Fallon holding facility where they were being prepared for adoption or shipment to pastures in the Midwest. Activists blamed most of the deaths on stress and trauma, while BLM officials attributed the deaths mostly to the poor body condition of mares.
The deaths prompted animal rights activists to press Churchill County prosecutors to file criminal charges against BLM officials. The sheriff's department submitted a report with no recommendations to the district attorney's office after investigating allegations of abuse and neglect at the holding facility, but prosecutors took no action.
The BLM estimates 1,602 wild horses currently roam free in the complex. The proposed removal of 1,298 horses would return the herd population to within the "appropriate management level" of 572 to 952 mustangs, officials said.
"Keeping the herd population in balance with the available forage and water helps keep these wild horses healthy," said Rolando Mendez, a BLM field manager. "It is the BLM's responsibility to sustain the health of the rangelands, and achieve and maintain a thriving natural ecological balance."
Activists accuse the BLM of inflating horse numbers to justify another expensive roundup.
"We see a thriving natural ecological balance in the Tri-State Complex and no need for another deadly roundup," Novak said.