Judge hears arguments on controversial proposal to roundup wild horses

Wild mustang weanling in holding. (Photos © Anne Novak, all rights reserved.)

Wild mustang weanling in holding. (Photos © Anne Novak, all rights reserved.)

By Sarah Favot,

PASADENA — Wildlife activists packed a federal appeals court hearing Thursday afternoon to oppose the roundup of wild horses, which were recognized by the 1971 Congress as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.”

“It’s cruelty,” said Patty Shenker of Tarzana, who has rescued five horses. “I want to see wild animals stay in the wild and enjoy it.”

In a 2010 lawsuit, In Defense of Animals alleges the Bureau of Land Management violated the Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act and the National Environmental Policy Act when it planned to round up about 2,300 wild horses and burrows in 2010 on the Twin Peaks Herd Management Area, which consists of about 800,000 acres in Northeastern California and Northwest Nevada. About 180 wild horses and burros were to be released back into the wild. The remaining horses were transported to BLM facilities for adoption, sale or long-term holding in private facilities, under what In Defense of Animals describes as “zoo-like” conditions.

While In Defense of Animals filed an injunction to stop the roundup, the motion was denied and the roundup went forward.

A total of 1,799 horses and burros were gathered and 59 were returned to the range. Fifteen animals died, according to BLM’s website.

In November, a U.S. district court judge ruled in favor of BLM and the U.S. Department of Interior saying the roundup did not violate the NEPA or WFRHBA.

In Defense of Animals appealed and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments for about one hour Thursday afternoon.

The Act, approved by Congress in 1971, allows the Department of Interior to manage the population of wild horses if the natural ecological balance of the land is threatened.

The wildlife advocacy organization’s attorney Rachel Fazio said BLM did not adequately prove wild horses solely threatened the ecological balance at Twin Peaks.

“In this situation, that benchmark was not established by BLM before they proceeded to round up 80 percent of the animals on this range,” said Fazio.

Mark R. Haag, BLM’s attorney, argued BLM had established the number of horses on the range exceeded the appropriate management level. He said areas of the range were trampled, vegetation was lost and cultural artifacts were damaged due to erosion.

“My problem here is I thought the purpose was to achieve a thriving natural ecological balance and that the appropriate management level determination was just a tool to get to that thriving natural ecological balance, but it seems to me the agency disregarded that,” said Judge Johnnie B. Rawlinson.

Jack Carone, communications and campaigns director for In Defense of Animals, said if the court rules in their favor, he hopes other parties would question other BLM roundups.

Apache Running-Hawk Daklugie, who grew up on the Mescalero Apache Reservation in New Mexico, described the sacred relationship between wild horses and Native Americans.

“They’re brothers and sisters to us,” he said. “We painted and fought with them. We went to war with them and we tamed them.”

Tonya Littlewolf, founder of Wolf Mountain Sanctuary in Lucerne Valley, said during the roundups some horses’ hooves fall off and their legs are broken.

“They can’t speak for themselves so we have to speak for them,” she said.

She was hopeful the case would rule in the activists’ favor.

“I feel it will be a good thing today because God walks with us and these are his creatures,” she said. “He made animals before He made us.”

Comment at the Pasadena Star News