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US plans more wild horse roundups this year than ever before

| January 25, 2022 4:20 PM

By SCOTT SONNER

Associated Press

RENO, Nev. — The U.S. government plans to capture more wild horses on federal lands this year than ever before, drawing sharp criticism from mustang advocates who hoped the Biden administration would curtail widespread gathers of thousands of horses annually across the West.

Critics say it’s a continuation of a decades-old policy that kowtows to ranchers who don’t want horses competing with their cattle and sheep for limited forage on Bureau of Land Management rangeland in 10 states.

In Nevada, home to about half the 86,000 horses roaming federal lands, three groups have filed a new lawsuit challenging what they say is the illegal, inhumane roundup of more than 2,000 horses that's already under way about 80 miles (128 kilometers) west of the Utah line.

Of the 987 gathered as of Monday, 11 had died, according to the agency's web site.

At least one death was a colt that continued to be pursued by a low-flying helicopter driving the herd toward a holding pen even though it was struggling to walk due to a “clearly broken” leg, according to the lawsuit. It says the colt suffered for at least 29 minutes before it was euthanized.

“It is more than disappointing that BLM will continue the charade that they care about wild horses,” said Laura Leigh, president of the Reno-based Wild Horse Education, one of the plaintiffs.

Bureau Director Tracy Stone-Manning, known as an ally of conservationists on several public land fronts when she was appointed last fall, announced plans this month to permanently remove at least 19,000 horses and burros by Sept. 30. She said their population has declined from 95,000 in 2020 but is still triple what the government claims the land can sustain ecologically — something horse advocates dispute.

Opponents say their removal violates the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act.

“It didn’t take long for Tracy Stone-Manning to sell-out America’s wild horses,” Friends of Animals President Priscilla Feral said.

Bureau spokesman Jason Lutterman declined comment in an email to The Associated Press.

The lawsuit filed Friday in federal court in Reno says the agency is exaggerating drought conditions and exploiting legal loopholes with 10-year plans that combine multiple horse management areas without the necessary site-specific assessments.

Meanwhile, it says taxpayers continue to finance subsidies for the livestock industry through below-market grazing fees for millions of cattle and sheep causing more ecological harm than horses.

“Using drought as a fig leaf for its illegal actions, the bureau ... is depopulating the West of its wild horses and burros herd by herd and burning through taxpayer dollars with their endless roundups and holding facilities,” said Wayne Pacelle, president of Animal Wellness Action, lead co-plaintiff with the New York-based CANA Foundation.

As of last month, the agency was holding more than 59,000 horses and burros in off-range corrals and pastures, according to its web site.

The National Cattlemen's Beef Association says the horse activists are threatening the future of rangeland ecosystems and wellbeing of the horses themselves.

“Groups who file lawsuits like this continue to prove that they’d rather draft emotional press releases than contribute to meaningful solutions," said Kaitlynn Glover, the association's director of natural resources.

“Gathers like this one are an important part of a multi-step process to bring horse herds in balance and avoid the horrific realities we see on the range today,” she said.

The agency’s 2022 strategy includes treating at least 2,300 animals with fertility control and releasing them back to public lands — an approach supported by some but not all horse advocates — to stem the growth of herds that otherwise double about every five years.

That would be the most treated with fertility control in one year, nearly double the previous high of 1,160 in 2021, the bureau said.

The agency permanently removed 13,666 animals from the range in 2021, the previous high. It gathered fewer than 5,000 annually from 2013-17 — largely because government holding pens were full — before removing 11,472 in 2018, its web site says.

It acknowledges that, due partly to a sharp decline in demand for captured horses offered for public adoption over the past 10 years, it has been left in “the unsustainable position of gathering excess horses while its holding costs spiral upward.”

The lawsuit says the environmental assessment the bureau approved last May for the Nevada roundup described plans for a series of “phased gathers to remove excess animals” over a 10-year period, not “at once.”

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