By SCOTT SONNER, Associated Press
Posted on SF Gate. Thursday, July 14, 2011 (07-14) 15:47 PDT Reno, Nev. (AP) --
A federal judge said he intends to decide Friday whether to grant an emergency injunction blocking a government roundup of 1,700 wild horses in eastern Nevada, a move that also could affect other roundups on public rangeland across the West.
"I'm very concerned about the wild horses," U.S. District Judge Howard McKibben said Thursday as he questioned lawyers for both sides about their interpretations of the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971.
Opponents of the roundup say it violates the act because the Bureau of Land Management has failed to prove the herds are overpopulated and causing ecological harm to public rangeland.
Such a finding is necessary before any of the horses can be removed from federally designated "horse management areas," they say.
"This statute was put in place for a reason — to protect these horses from man, and that includes BLM," said Rachel Fazio, a lawyer for the Colorado-based Cloud Foundation suing to block the roundup BLM intends to start Saturday.
"These horses are to be left alone and not interfered with unless there is a threat to the thriving, natural, ecological balance and that does not exist," she said.
"There may be some water issues in some isolated areas, but these horses are in great condition. There is tons of forage out there. There is no urgency right now to remove these horses from the range."
The 1,700 horses targeted for roundup are among about 2,200 that roam a series of horse management areas covering a total of 1.7 million acres southeast of Elko and northwest of Ely in northeast Nevada.
BLM maintains that area can support only between 500 and 900 horses. Agency officials say they already are trucking in water due to typical water shortages in some areas and that while forage may be adequate now, there will be less come winter.
"The plaintiff suggests we wait until the entire 1.7 million acres is severely damaged before we can act," said Erik Petersen, a Justice Department lawyer representing the BLM during Thursday's one-hour hearing.
Petersen said it is important for the agency to stick to its schedule of roundups because there are a limited number of contractors who can provide the helicopters needed for the largest gathers.
Postponing the Nevada roundup "could delay other gathers throughout the western United States," he said, adding that the next big roundup is planned in Wyoming in September.
The lawsuit accuses BLM of managing the land primarily for livestock and ignoring the act's directive to manage the land "devoted to mustangs and burros principally for their welfare."
McKibben asked Fazio on Thursday, "What does `principally' mean?"
"Mostly," she answered. "There are multiple uses of the land but make sure the horses have the most."
"It's not exclusive, but in the few areas where the BLM has designated ranges to sustain wild horse herds, they should be given priority. Currently in these (horse management areas), livestock are given priority," Fazio said.
"The plaintiff wants to couch this as cattle versus wild horses, but there are a lot of other facts at play," Petersen said.
"The act does not entitle wild horses to better treatment than other" animals on the land, including sage grouse, he said.