RENO —A federal judge said Monday he is “troubled” by the government’s reliance on a 2010 environmental assessment to justify a new roundup of more than 300 wild horses in northern Nevada.
U.S. District Judge Larry Hicks told lawyers for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management during a hearing in Reno that he expects to rule this week on a request for a temporary restraining order sought by two horse protection groups that argue the science cited by the BLM is outdated.
BLM officials say the review conducted nearly five years ago contemplated further roundups in the Pine Nut Range southeast of Carson City and that another formal review of the potential impacts on the herds is not required under federal law.
The agency’s current plans call for the roundup of all 332 mustangs, with about 200 shipped to holding facilities.
The rest would be returned to the range, including some mares that would first be injected with the drug PZP to keep them from reproducing for about two years
Michael Ray Harris, a lawyer for Friends of Animals and Protect Mustangs seeking the court order, says the 2010 review ignores more modern scientific research about the potential harm the drug can cause to wild horse herds.
“My overall impression is this case presents a classic dilemma,” said Hicks, who has handled numerous wild horse legal disputes.
BLM “has an absolute duty” and is obligated to remove any excess population of horses, he said. But the judge also said there appears to be new and potentially more significant research conducted since 2010 about the impact PZP can have on the behavior of the animals.
BLM maintains there are nearly twice as many horse in the Pine Nut Range as the high desert habitat can support without causing ecological damage, some of which could impact the imperiled sage grouse.
Rachel Roberts, a lawyer for the Justice Department’s Natural Resources Section, said the gather is almost identical to the one outlined in the 2010 environmental assessment and conducted in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act.
“If BLM is not allowed to gather the horses, their population will be reduced by starvation,” Roberts said. “I don’t think anyone wants that.”
Harris said the new research includes a paper published later in 2010 by Cassandra Nunez, an adjunct assistant professor of ecology at Iowa State University. She was a researcher at Princeton University when she wrote the paper concluding the BLM’s earlier assessment was accurate at the time.
“It is outdated now,” Nunez wrote in a 40-page affidavit attached to the lawsuit. “Recent research has demonstrated changes in mare stress and reproductive physiology, in addition to changes in male behavior.”
Bands of wild horses historically are stable, with mares staying with the same males much if not all of their lives, the lawsuit says.
“However, when they have been treated with PZP and mares cannot get pregnant, they will leave bands,” it states.