Court upholds wild horse removals in Nevada

By Laura Bies

A federal court has upheld the Bureau of Land Management’s plan to remove nearly 2000 horses from the range in Nevada. ©BLM Nevada

A federal court upheld the Bureau of Land Management’s plan to remove more than 1,700 wild horses from the Caliente Herd Area in southeast Nevada.

More than ten years ago, the BLM determined the area could not provide essential habitat components to sustain wild horse populations. In 2008, the BLM revised the resource management plan for the Ely District, which includes the Caliente Complex, and developed plans to remove all horses from the 900,000-acres area. In 2018, the BLM finalized an environmental assessment describing and analyzing their plan to gather and remove all of the approximately 2,000 wild horses from the nine herd areas comprising the Caliente Herd Area Complex.

Plaintiffs argued that the agency’s actions violated the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 and the National Environmental Policy Act. The plaintiffs, a coalition of organizations supporting wild horses and opposing grazing on public lands, sued in 2018 alleging the BLM placed livestock grazing over the welfare of wild horses in making the decision. They also argued that the agency did not appropriately consider the environmental effects of its decisions, as required by NEPA.

The federal court determined that the BLM did not violate its mandate to provide for multiple uses of public lands and that it did in fact take the required “hard look” at the environmental impact of its action NEPA requires. The court clarified that in deciding to remove horses to improve the health of the rangelands, the agency was not obligated to also reduce or eliminate livestock grazing.

The plaintiffs have indicated that they intend to pursue additional legal action.

The court’s decision comes as the wild horse and burro situation on public lands is in the national spotlight. Nationwide, more than 88,000 wild horses and burros roam BLM lands, with over 47,000 in Nevada alone. These populations far exceed the agency’s population targets of less than 27,000 nationally and less than 13,000 in Nevada to sustain a “thriving natural ecological balance” with other public land uses required by federal law.

The Wildlife Society has regularly advocated for federal agencies to reduce populations of free-roaming horses and burros on public lands. As a nonnative invasive species, horses and burros compete with native wildlife and damage their habitats.

The administration’s budget request for Fiscal Year 2021 includes $116.8 million for the BLM’s horse and burro program, an increase of $15.3 million over FY 2020. It remains to be seen if Congress will provide the increase, as it awaits a long-overdue report from the agency regarding options for reducing wild horse and burro populations on federal lands, along with estimated costs.

Read TWS’s Issue Statement on Feral Horses and Burros in North America.

Laura BiesLaura Bies is a government relations contractor and freelance writer for The Wildlife Society. She has a B.S. in Environmental Science and a law degree from George Washington University. Laura has worked with The Wildlife Society since 2005. Read more of Laura's articles.

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