PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) - A federal breeding program for wild horses whose ancestors "helped settle the West" will reduce herds' genetic health and create a "zoo-like atmosphere," horse-lovers claim in Federal Court.
Front Range Equine Rescue sued the Bureau of Land Management and the Interior Board of Land Appeals on Wednesday, in Federal Court, in a new twist in long-running legal battles over the management of the West's wild horses.
In May 2014 the BLM sought to "artificially" create a mustang breeding pool in the Kiger and Riddle Mountain herd management areas, about 50 miles south of Burns, Ore., Front Range says in the complaint.
The Kiger herd area spans 62,992 acres in eastern Oregon, and its herd typically ranges from 51 to 82 wild horses. The Riddle Mountain herd has 33 to 56 wild horses.
In July and August 2015, Front Range says, the BLM rounded up all the wild and free-roaming horses in the areas.
It permanently removed 156 "excess" wild horses, and returned only horses fitting the characteristics of the Kiger mustang strain, which "represent a particular type or breed of mustang with a particular genetic makeup."
The BLM says the Kiger and Riddle Mountain herds mirror characteristics of the original Spanish mustang, which "was a part of early American history, having roots in Native American history, and is the horse that helped settle the West ."
Front Range appealed to the Interior Board of Land Appeals in June 2015, claiming the BLM violated the Wild Horse Act, which was meant to "deter the possibility of 'zoo-like' developments."
The Wild Horse Act was written to "extend federal protection to wild horses and empower BLM to manage horses roaming public lands as part of the agency's management of the public lands." The BLM was charged with the "protection, management, and control of wild free-roaming horses and burros on public lands," Front Range says.
It adds that Kiger horses are "highly coveted" by private citizens, as shown by their 100 percent adoption rate since 1986.
"By intentionally reducing the diversity of wild horses in the Kiger and Riddle Mountain HMAs [herd management areas] to only those horses with Kiger characteristics, and then conducting gathers every four years to further empty the gene pool and round up these valuable Kiger horses to sell them for adoption, BLM has effectively created a breeding facility that injures the natural herds' survival possibilities and benefits only BLM and private actors desirous of purchasing this 'breed,'" the lawsuit states.
After months of litigation, the Interior Board of Land Appeals held on Jan. 13 that Front Range lacked standing to challenge the BLM's actions.
The appeals board ruled that Front Range was not "adversely affected" by the roundup and removal of wild horses in Kiger and Riddle Mountain. The appeals board added that Front Range's "only injury" was the cost of the lawsuit.
Front Range called that ruling arbitrary and capricious, and a violation of the Administrative Procedure Act.
Despite numerous statements from Hilary Wood, Front Range's founder and president, "demonstrating the various ways in which FRER [Front Range] has expended its limited resources directly because of BLM's actions in the Kiger and Riddle Mountain HMAs, the IBLA opinion concluded that FRER's only injury is the expenditure of resources on the instant lawsuit," the complaint states.
Front Range's attorney Bruce Wagman said Thursday that the breeding effort is "creating a zoolike atmosphere."
"The BLM is engaging in a concerted breeding effort and manipulating the genetic makeup of the herds, creating a zoolike atmosphere, in direct violation of and conflict with the spirit and nature of the Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act," Wagman told Courthouse News.
The BLM did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday.
Front Range Equine Rescue, a nonprofit launched in Colorado in 1997, works to prevent the abuse and neglect of horses through rescue and education.
It operates solely on donations.
It seeks an order setting aside, reversing and remanding the land appeals board's opinion.
Wagman, with Schiff Harding of San Francisco, represents Front Range pro hac vice.
Its lead counsel is Melissa Healy with Stoel Rives.