Stunning Legal Victory Will Help Wild Horses

Stunning Legal Victory Will Help Wild Horses

A U.S. district court recently issued a stunning legal victory for wild horse advocates and Laura Leigh’s Wild Horse Education nonprofit which may change the way wild horses are managed on federal lands going forward.

The 2022 Nevada Pancake Complex roundup was especially brutal, even by dubious Bureau of Land Management (BLM) standards. Dozens of horses died and the roundup gained world-wide attention when a colt with a broken leg was shown running from a helicopter

The court victory wasn’t based on the BLM’s brutality but on its “unreasonably delayed” completion of a legally required Herd Management Area Plan (HMAP). An HMAP summarizes the BLM’s plans for the long-term health of herds and rangeland within a particular Herd Management Area (HMA). However, the BLM concentrates on wild horse removal without addressing the herds’ health or conducting an environmental assessment of rangeland by evaluating forage allocation, livestock grazing, and wildfire risks. The court ordered the BLM to complete an HMAP for the Pancake Complex by March 24, 2025. This decision sets a precedent to provide more protection for wild horses roaming on federal lands. 

The BLM plans roundups based on what it calls “wild horse overpopulation” on various HMAs. The BLM bases what it considers “overpopulation” on Appropriate Management Levels (AML). AMLs are usually administrative decisions and are not environmentally based, do not consider livestock grazing and forage allocation, and do not consider wild horse health and genetic viability.

The judge rejected the BLM’s standard argument that individual roundup plans for those herds they deemed “overpopulated” along with management plans satisfy the requirement for an HMAP. According to Laura Leigh, “The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act is about more than just removal. Today, the court affirmed the intention of that law.”

HMAP is the only BLM document specifically noted in the Code of Federal Regulations. Unfortunately, this document is usually omitted in BLM planning. BLM usually includes the need for HMAPs in their congressional reports for increased funding. The BLM has not used its increased funding for HMAP creation.

So, why has the HMAP and its assessments been neglected for so long? We can blame Congress for part of the problem. A rider was placed on a must-pass spending bill in 2014. The rider allowed BLM to rubber stamp 10-year livestock grazing leases without

any environmental assessment. Most of our public lands and wilderness areas have lease allotments designated for use by livestock. Grazing leases/permits are supposed to undergo a public analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The NEPA guides the long-term management of public rangelands. The rider was supposed to allow the BLM to address the NEPA backlog.

Unfortunately, the BLM has used the rider to reduce NEPA analyses and now has a codified authority to sidestep the NEPA process, thereby allowing a full BLM disconnect from environmental assessment and policy and allowing the agency to produce policy based on administrative whims and monetary influencers.

The U.S. district court legal victory reconnects the BLM to managing rangelands by considering public input, environmental assessment, livestock grazing, and forage allocation. Under this ruling, before a roundup can begin an HMAP should be performed. The HMAP must consider our public input and the health and genetic viability of wild horse herds. The legal victory may positively impact other native species and their habitats as well. Wild horse herds have been used throughout the world (except the U.S.) to restore native habitats degraded by humans and their nonnative exploited livestock.

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