(CN) – The Bureau of Land Management violated federal law when it decided to remove wild horses from an area in northwestern Colorado, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., ruled.
The Colorado Wild Horse and Burro Coalition, along with three other horse protection groups and an equine veterinarian, sued the U.S Department of the Interior and Secretary Ken Salazar for alleged violations of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act.
The Act makes it a federal crime to kill or harass a roaming horse or burro, and calls the animals “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.”
The court found that the BLM’s decision “exceeds the scope of authority” granted to it by Congress, because the BLM itself has not determined that the area is overpopulated with wild horses under the Wild Horse Act.
The BLM argued that removing the wild horses is necessary to manage animals on public lands, saying it would transfer them into adoption or long-term care.
However, U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled that placing the horses in private hands fundamentally goes against the BLM’s job to keep let the animals roam free on public lands.
If the herd is removed, groups will no longer be able to observe the horses, which qualifies as a sufficient injury, the court ruled. The plaintiffs voiced concerns that wild horse removal would hurt horseback trips organized around viewing the animals in their natural surroundings.
The BLM first called for wild horse removal in 1980 for the area, which lies on 120,000 acres west of Douglas Creek, as energy exploration pushed horses into surrounding, non-protected areas. The horses remained, however, after a removal attempt was unsuccessful “for reasons not fully explained,” the ruling states. The BLM again called for removal in 1997, but then stepped back to reconsider.
Collyer’s ruling was in response to the BLM’s July 2008 decision to remove the horses by helicopter drive trapping, helicopter assisted roping, water trapping or bait trapping.
According to census data, the West Douglas Herd Area had nine wild horses in 1974 and has close to 150 today.