San Francisco-based In Defense of Animals and the Dreamcatcher Wild Horse and Burro Sanctuary have been battling the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) since 2009 to halt the roundup, which they claim violates the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act.
"The Act was supposed to protect wild horses and burros from harassment from human beings," says Eric Kleiman, research director for In Defense of Animals, "In the law, the formula for "excess" horses does not mean mere overpopulation. It's a two part thing -- overpopulation, plus if those horses are interfering with a natural ecological balance."
Kleiman says that even if the wild horse population was determined to be in excess, the BLM is not properly removing the horses by euthanizing the old, sick, and lame horses before rounding up the rest -- as is required by law. "They are rounding them all up at once through helicopter stampedes, and if you get an old, sick, or lame horse being stampeded, that's cruelty."The wild horses that are rounded up then get taken to short and long-term holding facilities, and some are adopted. "Of course in this economy, even domestic horses are having a hard time," says Barbara Clarke, Dreamcatcher Sanctuary board member. As of six years ago, the government also made it legal for the BLM to sell any horse over 10 years of age. "They can sell the horse to anybody, and once that horse is sold, who knows what happens," says Clarke. "We know a lot go to slaughter."
The BLM, meanwhile, contends that the roundup is necessary in order to keep populations in check. On the BLM website, Director Bob Abbey writes, "Wild horse and burro herds, which have virtually no natural predators, grow at a rate of about 20 percent a year, which means herds can double in size every four years. The BLM must remove thousands of wild horses and burros from the range each year to protect the public rangelands from the environmental impacts of herd overpopulation."
On Monday, two out of the three Ninth Circuit judges voted to dismiss the horse advocates' motion, but acknowledged that "the plaintiffs' motion raises serious legal questions concerning whether the large-scale removal of horses conflicts with the Wild Horses Act and whether an Environmental Impact Statement is required before any action can be implemented." Nonetheless, they concluded, "The roundup has taken place. This appeal, therefore, is moot."
But the dissenting Judge Rawlinson wasn't buying that, saying even though the roundup had occurred, effective relief could be provided so long as the horses could be returned to their native habitat.
"The horses that were rounded up are currently being kept in various holding areas," he observes, "As easily as the horses were transported out of their natural habitat, they can be returned."
While the motion has been shot down by the Ninth Circuit, the horse advocates have another shot at getting the wild horses back home. A separate case is being seen in the Eastern District Court of California, where Judge England shocked the BLM last April when he refused to dismiss the case on grounds of mootness, having similar reasoning to Judge Rawlinson.
"This is the first time that people have gotten the right to sue on behalf of the horses," says Clarke. "We still get our day in court. It's not over til it's over."Follow us on Twitter at @TheSnitchSF and @SFWeekly.