The Bureau of Land Management on Wednesday postponed a planned roundup of thousands of wild horses in Nevada because of a lawsuit and to allow time for appeals of its decision.
BLM spokeswoman JoLynn Worley in Reno confirmed that the roundup planned to begin Dec. 7 has been delayed until Dec. 28.
In Defense of Animals, a California-based animal protection group, filed a lawsuit Monday in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., seeking to halt the roundup. The suit said wild horses are an integral part of the natural ecosystem and should remain on rangeland throughout much of the West rather than be herded into long-term holding pens.
The suit also argued that the use of helicopters in massive roundups is illegal because they "traumatize, injure and kill" some of the animals.
"We welcome this moratorium on the capture and inhumane treatment of the Calico horses," said William Spriggs, an attorney representing plaintiffs in the suit, which include Craig Downer, a renowned wildlife ecologist.
"We are confident that the court will agree that America's wild horses are protected by law from BLM's plan to indiscriminately chase and stampede them into corrals for indeterminate warehousing away from their established habitat," Spriggs said.
BLM still plans to round up about 2,700 animals from the Calico Complex Herd Management Area near the Black Rock Desert north of Reno, Worley said, adding that the agency will issue its formal decision Tuesday.
The agency received more than 8,000 comments concerning the plan, she said, and the three-week delay will allow time for the court case and any appeals of the formal decision to be filed.
"We are giving that process a little bit of time to play out," she said. Ultimately, the BLM wants to reduce the herd size to between 600 and 900.
Springs said Justice Department lawyers agreed to the delay by late Tuesday. Motions seeking a preliminary and permanent injunction against the roundup were filed Wednesday, he said.
Mustang advocates say the roundup violates the Wild Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act, which Congress passed in 1971 to protect wild horses and burros as "living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West."
The BLM estimates 36,600 mustangs live on public lands around the West, about half in Nevada. It wants to reduce the population to what it considers an "appropriate management level" of 26,600.
In 2008, the BLM said it would have to consider euthanizing wild horses because of escalating numbers and costs of caring for them in long-term holding facilities. But earlier this year, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the agency instead would pursue shipping horses to pastures and holding corrals in the Midwest and East.
The agency estimates there are now about as many animals in long-term holding corrals as exist in the wild.