A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals earlier this month voted 2-1 to reject appeals by several horse-lover groups intent on stopping the Bureau of Land Management from rounding up feral horses and burros.
But the dissent, written by Judge Johnnie Rawlinson of Las Vegas, was not something the horse lovers should hang their hats on. Rather it was an endorsement of even stricter compliance with the law, which calls not only for the removal of excess horses and burros from public rangeland but the disposal of any animals not suitable for private adoption.
Her dissent should be cited by the Nevada Association of Counties and the Nevada Farm Bureau Federation, who have sued the Department of Interior, the BLM, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and others for failing to follow the requirements of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971.
In the fall of 2010 the BLM rounded up 1,800 wild horses and burros from the 800,000-acre Twin Peaks herd management area on the Nevada-California border, because there were three times as many horses and burros as the range could sustain. After the gathering, fewer than 1,000 horses and burros remained.
The groups — In Defense of Animals and Dreamcatcher Wild Horse and Burro Sanctuary and others — sued to try to stop the gather and continued the suit afterward claiming the BLM failed to protect the animals from “capture, branding, harassment or death.”
Two circuit court judges ruled the BLM action was within the scope of the law.
But Rawlinson wrote in her dissent that the BLM failed to follow the letter of the law, which requires specific priorities and actions. First, the secretary of Interior “shall order old, sick, or lame animals to be destroyed in the most humane manner possible.” Then, excess animals shall be captured and removed for adoption. Finally, those not adopted are “to be destroyed in the most humane and cost efficient manner possible.”
Of course, Congress in its infinite wisdom has prohibited the most cost efficient manner possible by refusing this year to provide funding for inspectors at facilities that slaughter horses for meat and rendering of byproducts.
There are 40,000 feral horses and burros on the open range, which exceeds by nearly 14,000 the number the range can handle. Off the range, there are more than 48,000 animals in either short-term corrals or long-term pastures, which the taxpayers are feeding for their average 25-year life span.
The Nevada federal lawsuit brought by the counties and the farm bureau argues the BLM is starving the very animals the law was intended to protect.
“Free-roaming horse and burro herds in Nevada are frequently observed to be in malnourished condition, with the ribs and skeletal features of individual animals woefully on view and other signs of ill-health readily observable,” the suit says.
The federal agencies often claim that their ability to properly maintain the population of feral horses and burros is hampered by a lack of funds. The suit calls this a “self-inflicted handicap,” because half of the BLM’s horse and burro budget is going to warehousing those 48,000 animals.
At the Twin Peaks roundup, the BLM failed to first destroy all the “old, sick, or lame animals.” Only two were euthanized due to leg injuries, according to BLM records.
The BLM is boldly and publicly flouting the law. On its own website it admits “it has been and remains the policy of the BLM not to sell or send wild horses or burros to slaughter. Consequently, as the Government Accountability Office noted in a report issued in October 2008, the BLM is not in compliance with (the law) … that directs the Bureau to sell excess horses or burros without limitation’ to any willing buyer.”
We urge the counties and the farm bureau to push their suit to the 9th Circuit quickly to protect Nevada ranchers from having their water and forage stolen by feral horses, aided and abetted by a law-breaking agency of the federal government.