Judge criticises BLM’s stance on wild horse evidence

Evidence on the effects on herds of castrating wild stallions was rejected by the BLM.
Evidence on the effects on herds of castrating wild stallions was rejected by the BLM.

An American court has rejected a decision of the US Bureau of Land Management to ignore submitted scientific evidence in its decision-making process over plans to castrate wild stallions.

At issue were expert declarations submitted to the bureau from experts in wild horse behavior and biology outlining the impacts castration would have on the health and natural behaviors of wild free-roaming stallions and wild horse herds.

The ruling in the US District Court for the District of Columbia resulted from action filed in December last year by the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign (AWHPC), the Western Watersheds Project and the Cloud Foundation challenging the bureau’s plan to castrate stallions in eastern Nevada’s Pancake Complex, as well as to eliminate wild horses from the Jake’s Wash Herd Management Area, within the complex.

The AWHPC says the ruling will have widespread implications for thousands of the remaining wild horses living free and wild on public lands.

US District Judge Beryl Howell said in her 23-page opinion that the agency “may not simply remain studiously ignorant of material scientific evidence well known to the agency and brought directly to its attention in timely-filed comments”.

She rejected the bureau’s attempt to exclude the expert declarations from the agency’s decision-making process and affirmed that the court would consider the “material scientific evidence” contained in the declarations in future rulings in the case.

AWHPC director Suzanne Roy said: “The BLM went to great lengths to avoid considering scientific information provided by leading wild horse experts.

“The agency is not interested in science. The BLM’s only interest is clearing our public lands of wild horses to make room for livestock grazing and other commercial interests.”

Cloud Foundation executive director Ginger Kathrens said: “This is yet another example of the agency’s epidemic refusal to incorporate science in its management of wild horse and burros herds.”

She said the founation commended the judge for “standing up for science and the right of the public to have input into government management decisions”.

Among the scientific evidence submitted by the plaintiffs but not considered by the bureau was a declaration from Dr Jay Kirkpatrick, the director of science and conservation biology at Zoo Montana and a foremost authority on wildlife reproductive biology.

Kirkpatrick stated: “The very essence of the wild horse, that is, what makes it a wild horse, is the social organization and social behaviors. Geldings [castrated male horses] no longer exhibit the natural behaviors of non-castrated stallions. We know this to be true from hundreds of years experience with gelded domestic horses.

“Furthermore, gelded stallions will not keep their bands together, which is an integral part of a viable herd. These social dynamics were molded by millions of years of evolution, and will be destroyed if the BLM returns castrated horses to the herd management areas … Castrating horses will effectively remove the biological and physiological controls that prompt these stallions to behave like wild horses.

“This will negatively impact the place of the horse in the social order of the band and the herd.”

The other declarations, submitted by Dr Allen Rutberg, of the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine; Dr Anne Perkins, of Carroll College in Montana; and Dr Bruce Nock, a faculty member at Washington University School of Medicine, provided further scientific information about the impacts of castration on wild stallions and wild horse herds.

Other plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit challenging aspects of the Pancake roundup include wildlife ecologist Craig Downer and photographer Arla Ruggles, who enjoy wild horse viewing in the herd management areas and whose professional and aesthetic interests will be harmed if the bureau moves forward with its castration plan.

The complaint alleges that the bureau’s plan for the Pancake Complex violates the Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Administrative Procedures Act.

The plaintiffs are being represented by the Washington D.C. public interest law firm Meyer Glitzenstein & Crystal.

A previous lawsuit filed in July 2011 by the firm prompted the bureau to withdraw a similar plan to release hundreds of castrated wild stallions in two herd areas in Wyoming.

The four affidavits in question had been filed by the plaintiffs over the Wyoming castration plan, ultimately cancelled by the bureau.

However, it was resurrected little more than a month later on the Pancake Complex and the plaintiffs intended to rely on the same four affadavits, which it accidentally failed to attach to its comments.

It soon realised its mistake, and emailed them in, but apparently not in time.

The bureau argued they could not be considered as they were too late to be part of the official record, but the judge ruled this was not sufficient grounds to reject the material, which, in any case, the bureau had received only months before in relation to the Wyoming castration plans.

The judge ruled that the bureau could not remain “studiously ignorant” of submitted scientific evidence under such circumstances.


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