Amid mounting evidence of wild horses being mistreated during government roundups and suffering in poorly tended holding facilities, a federal judge in California is allowing a key legal challenge by horse advocates to move forward -- one that could end up ordering captured horses released back to the open range.
The Bureau of Land Management has stepped up its annual "gathers" of wild horses across several western states in recent years, claiming that the herds' numbers have exceeded the land's ability to support them. But that assertion has been challenged repeatedly by horse activists, who contend that the BLM is intent on eradicating entire herds and has used inhumane methods to gather the animals and keep them in holding pens or private pastures. There are currently more horses "in custody" of BLM and its contractors than there are left in the wild, a costly situation that has put Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar under increasing pressure from Congress to find a better solution.
Although there have been a host of legal challenges to the roundups, most have been dismissed as moot once the roundup is over. That's why the April 20 ruling in California is being hailed as a possible turning point. U.S. District Judge Morrison C. England Jr. denied BLM's request to dismiss the lawsuit by In Defense of Animals and other advocacy groups, even though the action at hand -- rounding up more than 1,500 wild horses and 150 burros in northeastern California last year -- is already completed.
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The plaintiffs claim that the roundup removed a third of California's wild horse and burro population and seeks their return to their historic range. They're still a long way from an order undoing BLM's head-em-out policy, but the fact that a judge has acknowledged that the claim has merit -- and that citizens, not government entities, have standing to make it -- is a big deal.
Meanwhile, charges continue to fly about what's happening to the animals that have been rounded up, accompanied by searing images of mistreatment. Below is a video recently released by the Cloud Foundation that depicts conditions at a "short-term" holding facility in Utah featuring scenes of animals so mired in pens of excrement and urine they can hardly move. (For the complete report on the facility, go here.) It's disturbing stuff -- and yet more evidence that the BLM's horse management plans seem to be buried quite literally in crap.
More from our Follow That Story archive: "More wild horse roundups (and protests) in the works."