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Published September 01, 2011, 11:55 AM

Judge takes BLM to task over mustangs

RENO, Nev. — A federal judge in Nevada is taking the U.S. government to task for misconduct by a helicopter contractor during one of the biggest mustang roundups in the West, granting a rare emergency order sought by wild horse protection advocates who argue all of the gathers on public lands are inhumane and illegal.

By: Scott Sonner, Associated Press

RENO, Nev. — A federal judge in Nevada is taking the U.S. government to task for misconduct by a helicopter contractor during one of the biggest mustang roundups in the West, granting a rare emergency order sought by wild horse protection advocates who argue all of the gathers on public lands are inhumane and illegal.

U.S. District Judge Howard McKibben denied a request late Tuesday to halt the roundup at the Triple B complex in northeast Nevada near the Utah line. But he did issue a temporary restraining order banning any mistreatment of mustangs like the Wild Horse Freedom Federation caught on camera earlier this month.

Laura Leigh, the vice president of the Texas-based group that filed the lawsuit against Interior Secretary Kenneth Salazar, who oversees the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, said it was a small but important victory in a larger effort to bring attention to what she says is the BLM's routine violation of federal laws protecting the horses.

“This is significant because the judge saw what we see every day,” Leigh told The Associated Press.

“This is a recognition in the federal court system that there is something wrong with not only what is going on out there but something wrong with the justification process.”

BLM officials denied the group's claims that the helicopter pilot on the video actually struck a horse with a helicopter skid on Aug. 11.

McKibben said it appeared to him the horse was hit with the skid but even if it wasn't, the helicopter flew “dangerously or unreasonably close” to the animals in violation of the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971.

The roundup of nearly 1,300 horses, which began July 20, is scheduled to end this week.

McKibben said his order didn't preclude BLM from completing the roundup because Justice Department lawyers representing the agency indicated there would be no further use of helicopters at that roundup.

“Should the defendants contemplate the use of helicopters on the Triple B complex in the future, they will need to address the concerns raised by this court or be subject to possible additional intervention by this court in the future,” he said.

McKibben is the same judge who ruled in July against another horse group, the Denver-based Cloud Foundation, which had sought an order to block the roundup before it began.

BLM spokesman Doran Sanchez in Reno said Wednesday lawyers at the Justice Department and Interior Department's Office of Solicitor were reviewing the ruling. He said the agency “cannot comment at this time.”

The bureau says on its website that as of Aug. 29, about 1,270 animals had been gathered and 12 killed during the roundup at the Triple B complex southeast of Elko, Nev., and northeast of Ely, Nev.

Leigh's lawsuit says the BLM's helicopter contractor was Sun J Livestock of Vernal, Utah, the same one that was cleared of allegations of wrongdoing in February in connection with the videotape of a wild horse that fell during another roundup in eastern Nevada on Jan. 27.

BLM Director Bob Abbey said at the time that an internal review found that Sun J Livestock did not violate existing agency policy during the ongoing gather of mustangs in the Antelope complex about 60 miles south of Wells.

A woman who answered the telephone at Sun J Livestock on Wednesday declined to identify herself but told AP, “We don't have any comment, thank you.”

Leigh, who shot the latest video herself, said she hopes the BLM revisits the matter but said the repeat offense “raises a lot of questions about BLM's ability to police its own agency.”

R. T. Fitch, president of the Wild Horse Freedom Federation in Houston, said he witnessed the same “outlandish and aggressive behavior” by a pilot earlier this year while observing part of the roundup with Leigh at the Antelope complex.

“This man uses his aircraft like a weapon instead of a tool,” Fitch said Wednesday in an email to AP.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals condemned BLM's “shameful and unnecessary” use of helicopters contributed to serious injuries and several deaths to horses in Nevada this summer.

An ASPCA observer who spent more than a week in August at the roundup said young, unweaned foals were among those chased across the high desert for miles.

“Our video shows that BLM contractors lack the skill and experience needed to minimize trauma and stress inflicted on wild horses during the roundups,” said Matt Bershadker, senior vice president of ASPCA Anti-Cruelty speaking for the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign.

The horses targeted in the Triple B roundup are among an estimated 2,200 that roam a series of horse management areas covering a total of 1.7 million acres southeast of Elko and northwest of Ely in eastern Nevada. BLM officials maintain the area can only sustain between 500 and 900 horses.

About 33,000 wild horses roam freely in 10 Western states, with about half the animals in Nevada. An additional 40,000 horses are kept in government-funded facilities.

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