The Justice Department is in a legal battle with horse advocates over a program that uses helicopters to chase wild mustangs.

The Justice Department is in a legal battle with horse advocates over a program that uses helicopters to chase wild mustangs.

Federal Land Managers and Horse Advocates Clash over Wild Horse Gatherings

Reno Horse Gatherings

In the heart of the wild West, a heated battle between federal land managers and horse advocates is unfolding. At the center of the controversy are the wild horses that roam the vast public rangelands of Nevada. Federal land managers argue that culling the size of large wild horse herds is a necessary step to protect the ecological health of the lands. On the other hand, horse advocates claim that the deaths of these horses are avoidable and result from inhumane tactics used during the gathering process.

The issue came to a head in a recent court hearing in Reno, where U.S. District Judge Larry Hicks sought to gather details from both sides. The non-profit organization Wild Horse Education filed a bid for a temporary restraining order to halt the ongoing gather in northeast Nevada. The horses have been rounded up since July 9, with the scheduled gather set to run through August 22. The horse advocates argue that the gather is being conducted in an inhumane manner, with pregnant mares and young foals being chased in the scorching summer heat across rocky, high-desert terrain into makeshift corrals.

Government lawyers representing the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) were quick to respond, claiming that the horse advocates were trying to manipulate emotions by sharing photos and videos of injured mustangs fleeing helicopters and wranglers on horseback. They argued that while the deaths are unfortunate, they were within the average mortality rate of 1% to 1.2% for wild horse gathers conducted from 2010-2019. The lawyers also pointed out that the horse advocates failed to acknowledge the thousands of horses that have been gathered safely.

Amidst the legal battle, horse advocates argue that the mustangs have become scapegoats for the damage caused by taxpayer-subsidized cattle grazing. They claim that the limited forage on the high-desert range is predominantly utilized by cattle, and the horses bear the brunt of the blame. In a lawsuit filed on July 26, the advocates also contend that the roundup is unlawfully based on an outdated environmental review which fails to reflect the current conditions on the range. They further argue that the roundup goes against evidence that the herds are still in the midst of foaling season, during which the use of helicopters is largely prohibited.

Democratic U.S. Representative Dina Titus of Nevada has taken up the cause in Congress, pushing for legislation to outlaw the use of helicopters altogether. The advocates’ lawsuit additionally claims that the BLM is in violation of requirements that the public be allowed to witness the roundups without obstruction.

Above all, the lawsuit emphasizes that the roundup violates a 1971 U.S. law that mandates the humane treatment of animals. Laura Leigh, founder of Nevada-based Wild Horse Education, highlights the emotional toll of witnessing the abuse and the lack of action taken by the BLM to prevent unnecessary suffering. Leigh challenges the BLM’s assertion that peak foaling season is the same for all herds, arguing that there are seasonal distinctions throughout western rangelands in ten states. She defends her claims by citing examples of foaling seasons beginning as early as late January and continuing through September.

The clash between federal land managers and horse advocates underscores the intersecting interests and complex dynamics surrounding the use of public rangelands. While the BLM argues for the necessity of culling wild horse herds to preserve the ecological health of the lands, advocates insist on the humane treatment of these majestic creatures. The resolution of this legal battle will likely set a precedent for future wildlife management practices and the treatment of wild horses on public lands across the United States.