More than two years after it occurred, a Sacramento judge has put his stamp of approval on a wild horse and burro roundup by federal land managers.
An animal rights group, along with a wild horse and burro sanctuary and three individual activists, sought to head off the August 2010 roundup in Lassen County and Nevada's Washoe County. But U.S. District Judge Morrison C. England Jr., and later a federal appellate court, refused to temporarily block the Bureau of Land Management from holding the roundup until the matter could be resolved on its merits.
England ended the lawsuit Thursday, at least at the trial court level, with a 36-page order granting the BLM's motion for a summary judgment in its favor. The judge ruled that the agency conducted the roundup in compliance with national environmental policy and a congressional mandate for preserving wild horses and burros.
The BLM contended its goal was to restore an ecological balance to more than 789,000 acres that make up the Twin Peaks Herd Management Area and to prevent further degradation of habitat caused by an overpopulation of wild horses.
England concluded that the plaintiffs failed to show that BLM acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner in preparing its environmental assessment and carrying out the roundup.
Because wild horses have few enemies among natural predators and are long-lived, and with documented foal survival rates exceeding 95 percent, their population levels rise quickly. At the time of the environmental assessment in July 2010, there were an estimated 2,303 horses and 282 burros in the Twin Peaks area – close to 4.5 times more horses and four times more burros than the low range of the appropriate management level, according to BLM.
After the roundup, the bureau estimated that 450 horses and 72 burros were left in the area. The captured horses were placed in short-term holding facilities and then made available for adoption or sale to qualified individuals or were placed in long-term pastures. "Despite dire warnings," England found, "mortality rates as a result of the capture were much lower than expected."
He noted that the plaintiffs claimed the environmental assessment did not properly identify and categorize excess animals prior to the roundup, and there was no adequate showing that the area's resources were overtaxed. They further claimed BLM did not properly analyze the combined effect on the animals of so many being rounded up plus widespread use of a contraception drug among the mares.
They also claimed the assessment was lacking scientifically and failed to adequately respond to dissenting scientific opinion.
England, however, stated, "Examination of the lengthy (assessment) indicates that all aspects of the proposed gather were carefully considered."
The judge also pointed out that the law "does not give horses higher status than cattle on public lands" and that the horses are but one of "multiple species and many users sharing a common environment."
The plaintiffs could not be reached for comment on whether they will appeal.