Wild horse gathers to continue in ‘public interest’

The Bureau of Land Management will continue to gather more than 2,000 wild horses from the Pancake Complex in Nevada after a federal court decision.

The federal judge determined that a challenge to the Bureau of Land Management’s gather efforts in Nevada did not present enough evidence to warrant the court issuing a preliminary injunction, which would have required the agency to immediately halt the gathers.

The plaintiffs, Animal Wellness Action, the Cana Foundation and Wild Horse Education, filed their complaint last month, arguing that by conducting the gathers, the BLM was violating the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, as well as their First Amendment rights. The BLM argued that the gathers were necessary to remove excess animals from the range, especially in light of ongoing drought conditions. The agency noted that the gathers must be completed by March 1, so as not to interfere with the animal’s foaling season. It also defended its decision to limit access to the gathers by the plaintiffs and the general public, citing safety concerns.

The court sided with the BLM, finding that preventing the gathers would not be in the public interest. “Although the court agrees with plaintiffs that there is a strong public interest in preventing harm to wild horses and that intense scrutiny of the BLM’s actions is warranted, it does not follow that enjoining the gather would be in the public interest,” the court order said. “The Wild Horse Act requires that the Secretary of the Interior manage wild horses in a manner designed to maintain a ‘thriving natural ecological balance’—a status that cannot currently be ascribed to the Pancake Complex.”

The Pancake Complex is made up of three federal herd management areas and covers about 1.2 million acres in east-central Nevada. Prior to the recent gathers, the wild horse population on the complex was estimated at 3,244. The BLM has previously determined that the population for that area should be no more than 638 animals, to support a healthy rangeland that can also provide wildlife habitat.

The BLM is currently implementing a multi-year plan for horse and burro management, which calls for the agency to reduce the animals’ populations to a sustainable level over the next 15 years using various nonlethal methods. The agency estimates that more than 86,000 wild horses and burros range across 27 million acres of BLM-managed public lands in the western United States—far above the agency’s established ‘appropriate management level’ of 26,785 animals, or the maximum numbers that those public lands can sustain alongside other land uses without damaging vegetation, soils and other resources.

As a result of increased gathers in recent years, the total wild horse and burro population is down slightly from its high of just over 95,000 animals reached in early 2020. Unmanaged, wild horse and burro populations typically grow 15-20% annually, doubling in size every four years. In addition to regular gathers over the past few years, the BLM held several emergency gathers during the spring and summer of 2021, in response to the drought conditions in the western U.S. that reduced forage and water supply for the horses.

United States federal law guides the management of designated wild horses and burros on select BLM and U.S. Forest Service lands. As an invasive species, horses and burros compete with native wildlife and damage their habitats. The continued overpopulation of horses and burros limits the ability of wildlife professionals to conserve native wildlife species. The Wildlife Society has regularly advocated for federal agencies to reduce free-roaming horse and burro populations on public lands.

Header Image: A recent challenge to wild horse gathers in Nevada was rejected by a federal court. Credit: BLM Nevada