WASHINGTON (AP) - An animal rights group sued the federal government Wednesday to block plans to round up hundreds of wild horses in Wyoming, saying that capturing horses after the stress of winter is unnecessarily cruel.
''Forcing wild horses ... to run up to 10 miles over snow-covered and broken terrain is inhumane,'' the Animal Legal Defense Fund said in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court here. ''This is especially true for late-term pregnant mares.''
The lawsuit asks a federal judge to block plans to capture up to 400 wild horses on Bureau of Land Management property west of Rawlins in southwestern Wyoming. The lawsuit accuses the BLM of violating federal environmental laws by not considering other alternatives to the springtime roundup.
The agency plans to begin the roundup Monday, using a helicopter and wranglers on horseback to drive the mustangs into a trap, said Wyoming BLM spokeswoman Cindy Wertz.
A veterinarian checked on the horses in question last month and found them in good health, Wertz said. The agency does not round up horses in Wyoming between April 1 and July 15 to allow mares to give birth and raise their young without interference, Wertz said.
''The winter was a mild one,'' Wertz said. ''The horses are not suffering any undue hardship this spring. The mares are pregnant, but mares are pregnant 11 months of the year.''
The BLM manages wild horses on its 264 million acres in the West and periodically rounds up horses that stray out of designated areas or are in danger of overpopulating an area. Under a 1971 federal law, those horses are then put up for adoption by the public for as little as $125.
Although the federal law was passed in part to keep wild horses out of slaughterhouses, The Associated Press reported in 1997 that thousands of adopted wild horses were showing up in slaughterhouses that send horsemeat overseas for people to eat. The BLM in 1998 began requiring adopters to swear they did not plan to sell their horses to slaughter, but the agency acknowledged last year that at least 186 adopted horses had gone to slaughter within three months of their owners signing those pledges.
As wild horse populations have increased to an estimated 43,000, federal officials have responded with plans to round up many more than the 6,000 captured last year. President Clinton's 2001 budget request, for example, would more than double that number to target 12,800 wild horses for roundups.
Critics have objected strongly to plans to round up horses during the late winter and spring, when pregnant mares are often ready to give birth. Animal Legal Defense Fund spokeswoman Jeanne Stuart McVey said the group hopes Wednesday's lawsuit will lead to a ban of springtime roundups.
''This springtime roundup is especially inhumane and risky to near-term pregnant mares,'' said the group's lawyer, Valerie Stanley.
Wertz, the Wyoming BLM spokeswoman, said the agency needs to round up horses now because it can only process about 300 horses a month. The BLM needs to round up at least that many each month during the summer and fall before winter snows make roundups impossible, Wertz said.
''We're maintaining an ecological balance, and there are just too many horses in that area,'' Wertz said.