By David Schwartz
PHOENIX (Reuters) - Conservationists in Arizona sought a federal court order on Wednesday to block the U.S. Forest Service from rounding up about 100 wild horses roaming on public land that officials said are a public safety hazard.
Lawyers for the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group said they were seeking a temporary restraining order to prevent land managers from violating federal rules designed to protect the historic horses in the Tonto National Forest, about 75 miles (120 km) northeast of Phoenix.
"We are filing this to protect not only the horses, but our western heritage that dates back hundreds and hundreds of years," said attorney Bill Miller, in an emailed statement to Reuters.
The action was filed in response to a public notice of intent from the forest service, which set the stage for the horses to be rounded up and taken away effective on Friday.
The notice said the horses were considered unauthorized livestock and would be impounded and then auctioned by the state or at a private sale. Those animals not sold may be "condemned and destroyed, or otherwise disposed of," the notice said.
That sparked a firestorm of protest by conservationists and animal lovers, who were outraged at the potential loss of the horses that have lived there for decades and fears that they may be killed.
Forest Service spokeswoman Carrie Templin said the safety of the horses and the public required that the animals be removed from the well-traveled area, which she said has seen an increasing number of visitors and vehicles in recent years.
"The whole situation continues to get worse," Templin said, declining to comment specifically on the litigation. "Over time we're going to have more issues with horses, highways and people all being there at the same time."
Templin said there are no plans to begin the round-up on Friday and that there is no timetable for when the removal would begin.
According to the legal complaint the removal would go against the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 that was passed to protect these animals.
The complaint also states that the federal government is required by law to conduct an environmental impact survey before proceeding with its plans.
"Upon information and belief, the majority of these horses will be purchased for slaughter and sold for their meat," the complaint said.
(Editing by Curtis Skinner and Sandra Maler)