Chief Investigative Reporter George Knapp and Photojournalist Matt Adams
The fate of thousands of Nevada's wild horses was on the line Wednesday in the nation's capital. Advocates for the horses asked a federal judge to stop a massive roundup planned for later this month in northern Nevada.
The focus of the court battle is the proposed Calico roundup. The Bureau of Land Management says it needs to remove 2,700 horses from an area larger than 500,000 acres and it needs to happen even in brutal winter weather. Advocates for the horses argued the BLM action is cruel, dangerous and clearly illegal.
"The whole idea of the Wild Horse Act was the horse living in its natural state on the continent of its origin. Now that's being perverted and they are being made into slave horses, against their will and against the will of the people," said Wildlife Ecologist Craig Downer.
Downer is one of two Nevadans who lent their names to the lawsuit filed in Washington by the group In Defense of Animals to stop BLM in its tracks.
BLM had planned to start the roundup December 7, 2009 but delayed its plans for a few weeks. Unless Judge Paul Friedman orders otherwise, BLM will unleash its wranglers and choppers on December 28, 2009. The three-month project could cost $1.7 million in taxpayer money and remove 90-percet of the estimated 3,000 horses that live on more than half a million otherwise empty acres of public land.
The Calico gather is one of many on the BLM schedule. The bureau wants to capture another 12,000 horses to join the 33,000 already living in government pens. Earlier this year, Downer said the BLM's new found sense of urgency goes too far. "It's totally in your face extremism. It's a bold faced attempt to obliterate, and those few they leave, they sterilize them, cut them down to such miserably low numbers that they will become inbred or some rancher is going to come out and shoot the rest of them," he said.
In its public statements, BLM argues it needs to remove the horses right away to protect the range from overgrazing, even though last year the bureau approved an increase in cattle grazing in the very same range, saying then that damage from horses was negligible.
The lawyer representing Downer and the other parties thinks a winter roundup will kill many of the mustangs but his arguments in federal court focused on the law. "It does not include a roundup such as what is contemplated here. In fact, it is quite the opposite," said attorney Bill Spriggs.
Spriggs told the judge that the law lays out specific steps that must be taken before mustangs can be removed from public land, and that BLM hasn't followed any of them in the Calico Hills. He further argued BLM has no legal authority to warehouse horses in out-of-state holding pens, which is where most of them end up, in part because BLM puts minimal effort into adopting them out.
The judge said that if he agrees with the argument and stops the roundup, he's concerned what would become of the horses already captured. Mustang advocates say its BLM's own fault for not following the law. "That was a self-inflicted wound since they're spending 70-percent of their budget on horses in Kansas and should have spent it managing the horses in the first place," said Spriggs.
Because the roundup is slated to begin December 28, a decision on the preliminary injunction will have to come soon, most likely by next week. If it is granted, the mustang advocates will have the time to launch a much broader legal assault on the BLM's entire approach to the wild horse issue.
The I-Team special report on wild horses, Stampede to Oblivion, is re-airing this Saturday afternoon at 4 p.m. and it covers many of the central issues in this debate.