The helicopter roundup of 1,700 wild horses and burros on federal land on the California-Nevada state line was approved over objections by environmentalists, a federal appeals court ruled Monday.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 vote, upheld a ruling in favor of the Bureau of Land Management’s establishment of population levels for wild horses and burros and thinking of those herds to protect native plants and animals.
The BLM uses a practice of herding by use of low-flying helicopters to drive animals to a capture area where they can be sorted by sex and their health checked.
The appeals court said the BLM acted within its authority for a 2010 Gather Plan on the 800,000 acre Twin Peaks Heard Management Area and its environmental findings that the herd collection would not create significant environmental impact.
Two environmental groups dedicated to protecting wild horses and burros, In Defense of Animals and Dreamcatcher Wild Horse and Burro Sanctuary, opposed the roundup, arguing it violated the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.
“We conclude that the BLM acted within its authority,” wrote Judge Carlos Bea. In addition, the BLM decision not to prepare an environmental report was not arbitrary and the agency provided “a convincing statement of reasons when the gather’s environmental effects would not be significant,” he said.
In dissent, Judge Johnnie Rawlinson said Congress, in passing the wild horses protection act believed the horses and burros “are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West” and that the law was intended to protect them from “capture, branding, harassment to death.” She argued that only after old, sick or lame animals have been captured and destroyed does the law authorize additional roundup of free-roaming animals.
Since 1981, the BLM has been charged with maintaining a natural ecological balance in the Twin Peaks area between native species, including the horses, burros and other wildlife and the grazing of cattle and sheep, according to the court.
The BLM removes animals when the population exceeds its established levels. Initially, old sick or dying animals are destroyed, followed by the capture and removal of additional excess animals for private adoption or to be destroyed.
In 1998, BLM projected that if left unchecked, the wild horse population in the area would exceed 6,000 to 8,000 animals in a decade. The BLM argued that if left unchecked the population would cause serious impact on vegetation and wildlife habitat and reduce available water.
.During the helicopter capture period, mares are injected with a form of birth control to reduce fertility as another means of population control.
Some unadoptable excess wild horses are held at long-term holding facilities owned by private contractors. Environmentalists argued unsuccessfully that this also violated the law.
Case: In Defense of Animals v. US Dept of Interior, No. 12-17804