(CN) - The Bureau of Land Management can proceed with a plan to round up 2,700 wild horses in western Nevada, a judge in Washington, D.C., ruled, handing a defeat to animal rights activists who wanted the court to halt the roundup scheduled to begin Monday.
In Defense of Animals said the large-scale roundup in Nevada's Calico Mountains Complex violates the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act.
The Act requires the Bureau of Land Management to remove horses when their numbers exceed sustainable limits.
According to the BLM, a healthy population for the region is between 572 and 952 mustangs, but more than 3,000 live in the area, which spans 550,000 acres in Nevada's Humboldt and Washoe counties.
BLM agents will use helicopters to herd the wild horses into corrals and then transfer them to holding facilities in Kansas, Oklahoma and South Dakota, where the horses will be sold or adopted.
Horse advocates argued that the indiscriminate herding of up to 90 percent of the area's wild horses into temporary corrals violates the Act's procedures for horse removal. They also challenged the agency's plan to keep horses in holding corralls indefinitely.
U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman acknowledged that the Wild Horse Act bars long-term holding, but he refused to halt the roundup, saying it would place the BLM in an "untenable position."
"[T]he Wild Horse Act clearly requires the agency to remove wild horses from the West 'immediately' once BLM determines that an overpopulation exists, but if BLM can neither euthanize unadopted horses nor hold them for long periods, it has no realistic option for removing them from their ranges," Judge Friedman wrote.
Congress never explicitly authorized long-term holding of wild horses, though it has indirectly funded the actions, the judge noted. There are currently more than 30,000 wild horses in long-term holding, according to BLM estimates.
The BLM claimed that Congress implicitly condoned the placement of wild horses in holding facilities by continually denying the BLM funds to euthanize healthy horses. The agency reportedly spends 75 percent of its horse and burro budget on wild horse removal, relocation and maintenance.
Friedman conceded that the large numbers of mustangs in holding corrals "raises precisely the specter of the 'zoo-like developments' whose formation the Act was meant to prevent," but he reiterated that an injunction was not the answer.
He also rejected advocates' claim that the BLM violates the Wild Horse Act by evaluating horse health after capture, because the Act supposedly requires the agency to kill old or sick horses on the range before trying to capture healthy ones.
Judge Friedman said this argument defies logic.
"The statute's text and purpose do not support this reading, much less require it," he wrote.
He also shot down a suggested delay in the roundup, saying it would only encourage overpopulation and introduce the risk of mustang injury, as the muddy ground in the spring increases the chance of hoof and leg injuries.
The roundup is scheduled to start Dec. 28 and will last for 50 to 60 days.
"BLM will be permitted to capture up to 90 percent of the horses currently living in the Calico Mountains Complex and place them in temporary holding facilities," Judge Friedman wrote.
He added that even if he barred the BLM from placing any horses in long-term holding facilities, it could still remove the horses and keep them corralled in the short term.
"[T]he number of horses on the range will be reduced for some period of time whether an injunction barring long-term holding is granted or not," he wrote.