(CN) – A roundup of 167 wild horses in northwestern Colorado is underway after a federal judge refused to grant several wildlife nonprofits an injunction.
After opening the decision with a lyric from the Rolling Stones song “Wild Horses,” U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper noted Tuesday that the removal process consists of transferring horses deemed in excess from the wild and trying to adopt out or sell as many healthy horses as possible.
“[They] have [their] freedom, but [they] don’t have much time,” the Washington, D.C.-based judge wrote.
In trying to block the roundup that began Wednesday of a herd west of Douglas Creek in Colorado, environmentalists had relied on the Wild Horses Act, a federal law that requires the Bureau of Land Management to preserve animals in their native rangelands.
The environmentalists needed to show that the herd had been in this “area,” about 50 miles north of Grand Junction, when Congress enacted the 1971 law.
For Judge Cooper, however, the Bureau of Land Management’s tracking of the herd “strongly undercuts” their contention.
The bureau began differentiating the East Douglas herd from the West Douglas herd in 1986, but it first divided the Douglas Creek herd from the Piceance Basin herd over a decade earlier.
“Contrary to plaintiffs’ assertions, BLM’s determination that all of the horses in the West Douglas HA are ‘excess’ will not result in the ‘zeroing out’ of the horses in ‘the area’ in which they were found at the time of the passage of the Wild Horses Act,” Cooper wrote, abbreviating herd area. “Indeed, much of that original area is now contained within the East Douglas HMA, where BLM will continue to manage wild horses. At the very least, BLM’s decision to interpret the statutory term ‘the area’ by reference to the earliest geographic classifications it used after the act’s passage is a permissible reading of the statutory text.”
While the government set the “appropriate management level” for the East Douglas herd management area at 135 horses to 235 horses back in 2002, Cooper noted that “the current AML for wild horses in the West Douglas HA is zero, because the agency concluded that the West Douglas HA could not sustain a healthy wild-horse population consistent with BLM’s duty to preserve ecological balance and multipurpose land use.” (Emphasis in original.)
Cooper also noted that the Wild Horses Act was amended in 1978 to reflect the importance of maintaining the ecological balance in the area horses inhabit.
“Horses are only one ingredient of the public lands’ ecological makeup,” the 31-page opinion states.
The organizations that Cooper ruled against are the Cloud Foundation, the Wild Horse Freedom Federation, and the Colorado Wild Horse and Burro Coalition.
After a rapid month of delays and proposals, Cooper joked Tuesday that the case had “proceeded at a gallop.”
Though the bureau will euthanize any horses from the gather that are old, sick, or lame, Cooper found that the environmentalists cannot claim to suffer emotional distress that will leave them “irreparably injured” after observing and contemplating the trauma and harm that the horses may suffer in the roundup.
“The court does not question the sincerity or depth of the emotional connection that plaintiffs feel with these horses, nor does it discount the sadness that plaintiffs have experienced in watching horses being gathered in the past,” he wrote.
In this case, however, the bureau “does not intend to kill any healthy animals,” the ruling states.
The risk of death or serious injury to the gathered horses furthermore “appears to be quite low,” Cooper added.
Another argument from the environmentalists contended that the government relied on outdated data to suggest that the West Douglas horses were upsetting their environment.
Cooper nevertheless said that federal law authorizes the bureau to act on the information “currently available to it,” as “current inventories may not always be available.”
As to the balance of harm, the bureau noted that enjoining the roundup would only delay a necessary process, allowing the horse population to get bigger and making the ecological balance more difficult to reach.
On the same day Cooper issued his ruling, a different nonprofit filed a federal complaint in Washington against the roundup. Friends of Animals is the plaintiff in the new case.
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