RENO — A federal appeals court on Tuesday cleared the way for the roundup of more than 2,000 wild horses in California and Nevada, rejecting critics’ claims that the free-roaming mustangs have a legal right to remain on the range.
In an after-hours order, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco refused to grant an emergency stay sought by animal rights groups ahead of the scheduled roundup Wednesday.
The order came as lawyers for the Obama administration mounted their most vigorous defense to date for rounding up wild horses in the West, arguing in court filings that leaving the overpopulated herds on public rangeland would do the mustangs more harm than good.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Ignacia Moreno said in a court filing that the range cannot support the current population of horses, whose numbers were expected to grow. “The growing population of wild horses will have devastating impacts on the other resources in the area and on the wild horses themselves,” Moreno wrote.
Justice Department lawyers were defending the roundup on behalf of the Bureau of Land Management and its plans to begin its biggest roundup of the year along the California-Nevada border, about 120 miles north of Reno. That number represents up to 80 percent of the existing herd.
Critics say the helicopter-led roundups are inhumane, often leading to dozens of injuries and deaths. They also dispute BLM’s population estimates and maintain that livestock grazing has caused more ecological damage to the federal land that also supports numerous wildlife species, including deer, antelope and sage grouse.
The two-judge panel’s brief order did not explain its reasoning, only that the “emergency motion for injunctive relief pending appeal is denied.” It said the groups can continue on a normal appeal schedule but indicated the case wouldn’t be heard until after the roundup is over.
The latest roundup was expected to last four to six weeks.
Stuart Gross, a lawyer for the Bay Area-based In Defense of Animals, accused the BLM of ignoring its directive under federal law to manage the land “devoted to mustangs and burros principally for their welfare” and was instead managing it for commercial livestock.
He said after the ruling that the group intends to continue challenging the roundups even if they are unable to stop this one.
“The plaintiffs and the countless others who care about the welfare and survival of America’s priceless mustangs will keep up the fight until the BLM shifts away from its horribly misguided, destructive, and wasteful policies towards these majestic animals,” he told The Associated Press.
Officials for the Obama administration have come under pressure in recent months from members of Congress who want them to step in and reverse BLM’s overall plans to cull about 12,000 of 38,000 mustangs and burros from herds roaming 10 Western states.
A bipartisan letter signed by 53 other House members was sent to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on July 30, asking for the suspension of all roundups until the National Academy of Sciences can review the program. It cited the deaths of 105 horses during a northwest Nevada roundup over the winter and another 34 deaths last month in a roundup in northeast Nevada.