Fate of NV mustangs before U.S. judge in Reno

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RENO, Nev. — A federal judge considering a series of lawsuits over wild horses in northern Nevada indicated Wednesday she’s unlikely to grant a blanket prohibition on any roundups from a big herd near the Oregon line because government land managers insist they don’t intend to gather any more mustangs there for at least two years.

U.S. District Judge Miranda Du said there doesn’t appear to be a legal basis to grant horse advocates’ request for a temporary injunction regarding roundups in the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Owyhee horse complex given BLM’s representation that none of the more than 1,000 mustangs there will be gathered for two or three years.

Du said a written order would follow. She said she would consider during a regular court schedule in the months ahead the claims by Wild Horse Education leader Laura Leigh of Reno and others that such roundups are illegal because BLM has failed to provide the necessary documentation that the federal rangeland in question is overpopulated with mustangs.

Du scheduled a second hearing later Wednesday on a related case involving a dispute over ownership of horses that a Nevada tribe whose reservation is adjacent to the Owyee complex wants to sell at an auction, some of which likely will end up at foreign slaughterhouses.

The judge granted an emergency order last week temporarily blocking the sale of any unbranded horses the Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone Tribe had gathered while rounding up more than 400 animals in the area the week before.

The tribe, BLM and U.S. Forest Service maintain the tribe is the rightful owner of the horses. But the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign and others argue dozens of the mustangs are federally protected.

As a result of Du’s ruling late Friday night, at least 70 unbranded horses were held back from the sale at the Fallon Livestock Exchange over the weekend until the judge could hear arguments from both sides again on Wednesday.

Horse advocates say many of those horses originated from federally protected Horse Management Areas within the Owyhee complex.

Gordon Cowan, a lawyer for Wild Horse Education, told Du during Wednesday morning’s hearing that the BLM has no authority to gather any horses in the area because the agency’s 10-year environmental assessment of the impact of such roundups completed last fall fails to establish there’s actually a need to remove any of them from the public range.

“There’s no data they rely on that is reliable. They claim these horses are excess horses but they really don’t know,” Cowan said. He cited a recent study by the National Academy of Sciences that “in a nutshell confirms BLM doesn’t have appropriate data.”

The study concluded the roundups actually undermine BLM’s intention to control the horse population because they create less competition among herds for water and forage and as a result, horse birth rates increase.

Erik Petersen, a Justice Department lawyer representing the BLM and Forest Service, said the roundup opponents are seeking extraordinary “open-ended relief” that would result in “wide and sweeping changes” in agency policies.

“They would like vast programmatic agency changes that are much more appropriately considered in the halls of Congress rather than a courtroom,” he said.

Cowan argued that without a temporary injunction voiding any roundup plans under the 10-year EA, the BLM is free to change its annual gather schedule with little notice and proceed with removing horses despite its insistence in court on Wednesday no roundups are planned.

“It’s a moving target,” he said. “Tomorrow is a different story.”