An animal protection group asked a federal judge Wednesday to block a plan to round up about 2,500 wild horses to remove them from a Nevada range.
The mustang roundup planned for Dec. 28 would be one of the largest in Nevada in recent years. Federal officials plan to use helicopters to force the horses into holding pens before placing them for adoption or sending them to long-term holding corrals in the Midwest.
Mustang advocates say use of the helicopters is inhumane because some of the animals are traumatized, injured or killed.
The roundup is part of the Bureau of Land Management's overall strategy to remove thousands of mustangs from public lands across the West to protect wild horse herds and the rangelands that support them. The bureau estimates about half of the nearly 37,000 wild mustangs live in Nevada, with others concentrated in Arizona, California, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming.
Another 32,000 horses and burros are cared for in corrals and pastures in Kansas, Oklahoma and South Dakota.
A lawyer for In Defense of Animals, a California-based group that advocates on behalf of animal protection, called the roundup plan illegal.
"The BLM's policy of mass removal and stockpiling of horses was never authorized by Congress when it protected these iconic animals in 1971 as an important part of our national heritage," said William Spriggs, a Washington lawyer who argued against the roundup plan in court Wednesday.
In Defense of Animals and wildlife biologist Craig Downer sued the BLM last month to block the Nevada roundup. Terri Farley, a Nevada author whose books about wild horses target young readers, joined the lawsuit Monday.
Erik Petersen, a Justice Department lawyer who represents the BLM, said the roundup is needed because more than 3,100 horses and burros crowd the Calico Mountain Complex in northwestern Nevada _ about five times as many horses as the land can handle.
The 1971 law requires removal of excess horses to ensure they are treated humanely, Petersen said. Removing the animals also will help preserve the "endangered and rapidly disappearing" rangeland where they live, Petersen said.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced the mustang roundups in October as part of a new management plan he said would avoid the need to kill any wild horses. Interior Department officials had warned last year that slaughtering some of the 69,000 wild horses and burros under federal control might be necessary to combat rising costs of maintaining them.
Salazar said the current program is not sustainable for the animals, the environment or taxpayers.
The BLM's wild horse program cost about $50 million this year and is expected to rise to at least $85 million by 2012 if the program is not changed, officials said.
Spriggs, the lawyer for In Defense of Animals, said the BLM has only itself to blame for the high costs. At least two-thirds of the costs for wild horses are for long-term storage facilities in the Midwest that he said were nothing more than warehouses.
U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman said he would rule on the case before Christmas.
BLM wild horse and burro program: http://tinyurl.com/3rb6r7