June 25th, 2010 by Nicole Meyer
On May 24, 2010, In Defense of Animals (IDA) announced that U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman dismissed our lawsuit to stop the Calico Mountain Complex wild horse roundup on a legal technicality. As you may recall, IDA, joined by renowned ecologist Craig Downer and noted children’s author Terri Farley, filed a lawsuit against Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to stop the largest roundup of wild horses in years — the Calico Mountain Complex roundup in Nevada.
We’d like to clarify the outcome of this litigation, further explain why the judge dismissed the lawsuit, and describe why we believe that this groundbreaking case bodes very well for any future litigation.
Judge Friedman’s dismissal of the lawsuit (the ruling can be read here) was based on plaintiffs’ lack of standing – the legal right to issue a lawsuit. Judge Friedman’s dismissal had nothing whatsoever to do with the merits of the case. In his December 23, 2009 opinion denying plaintiffs’ request for a Preliminary Injunction (decision is here), Judge Friedman did rule, pending further briefing, that BLM’s practice of holding wild horses in long-term holding was likely illegal. He stated that “BLM’s use of long-term holding facilities runs counter to the statute’s mandate that the agency’s management of wild horses occur at ‘the minimal feasible level.’ 16 U.S.C. § 1333(a). Long-term maintenance of thousands of horses in holding pens constitutes intensive management that was not contemplated by Congress when the Wild Horse Act was passed.” The Judge further wrote, “BLM’s proposed confinement of hundreds or thousands of horses from the Calico Mountains Complex in long-term holding facilities in other states thus appears to contravene the unambiguous intent of Congress as expressed in statutory text and legislative history.” His opinion relied on the statute’s clear, unambiguous prohibition on relocating wild horses and burros to areas of the public lands where they did not exist in 1971 (the year the statute became law).
In light of this Judge Friedman wrote that “the agency’s best option might be to postpone the gather,” although he did go on to elucidate the potential problems with such a postponement. As we know, that postponement did not happen and today over 1,800 Calico wild horses are confined at a BLM facility in Fallon, Nevada. Over 100 horses have died as a result of the roundup and more than 40 heavily pregnant mares had spontaneous abortions – the vast majority died at the Fallon facility.
It’s important to note that Judge Friedman’s May 24, 2010 final ruling “assumes, without deciding, that plaintiffs’ rather conclusory allegations suffice” for legal standing in regards to the roundup and removal of the Calico horses, but that plaintiffs had not established standing with regards to the relocation to long-term holding of the horses. Because the Judge did not issue an injunction stopping the roundup and removal of the horses from Calico and that these actions had already occurred, he determined the roundup and removal issues were moot. The judge determined plaintiffs had not satisfactorily established standing regarding long-term holding, stating that “Their [plaintiffs’] asserted injury results from the removal of wild horses from the Complex, not from the placement of removed horses in long-term holding facilities.” He further stated that “plaintiffs’ asserted injuries are not sufficiently connected or ‘traceable’ to the agency action in question,” which was the long-term holding issue. These are the reasons for the Judge’s decision to dismiss the case – mootness for a roundup that the Court refused to enjoin, and the Court’s finding that plaintiffs had probably established standing for roundup and removal, but not for relocation to long-term holding.
It is significant that the Court assumed that plaintiffs’ allegations were sufficient for legal standing on the roundup and removal aspects of the litigation. Because the Judge did not address the merits at all in his May 24, 2010 ruling, his preliminary finding in his December 23, 2009 opinion that relocation to long-term holding is likely illegal indicates that the arguments put forth by plaintiffs in this litigation will be successful in any future lawsuit – especially since we fervently believe that the additional briefing requested by the Judge greatly strengthened plaintiffs’ arguments. This case was filed pro bono and we remain extremely grateful for the tremendous generosity of lead attorney William Spriggs, his legal team and law firm Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney.
IDA is determined to continue to fight the BLM’s ill-conceived plans to continue removing wild horses from their homes on the range and stockpiling them in long-term holding