WASHINGTON - The Obama administration said Wednesday it is going forward with a contentious plan to round up about 2,500 wild horses in Nevada.
A spokeswoman for Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said herds in the Calico Mountains Complex in northwestern Nevada are overpopulated and need to be reduced to protect the horses and the rangelands that support them.
"The current population in the five Calico herd management areas is three times what the range can handle, so this gather will ensure high-quality habitat for the wild horse and burros and other wildlife while protecting the public rangeland from overuse," said spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff.
She called the dispute over the roundup "yet another clarion call to develop and implement a long-term solution to the challenges we face concerning wild horses and burros on our public lands."
The Interior Department announcement came after a federal judge on Wednesday denied a request to block the roundup, saying opponents had failed to demonstrate that removal of the horses would violate federal law.
U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman said the agency is obligated under a 1971 law to carefully manage wild horse herds to prevent overpopulation.
The mustang roundup planned for Monday would be one of the largest in Nevada in recent years. Officials plan to use helicopters to force the horses into holding pens before placing them for adoption or sending them to long-term holding corrals in the Midwest.
The roundup is part of the land management agency's overall strategy to remove more than 10,000 mustangs from public lands across the West and ship them to greener pastures in the Midwest and East. The Bureau of Land Management estimates about half of the nearly 37,000 wild mustangs live in Nevada, with others concentrated in Arizona, California, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming.
Another 32,000 horses and burros are cared for in corrals and pastures in Kansas, Oklahoma and South Dakota.
Mustang advocates had sued to block the roundup, saying that use of the helicopters is inhumane because some of the animals are traumatized, injured or killed. Opponents also contend that the bureau is grossly inflating horse numbers to justify their removal from the range.
The lawsuit says wild horses are an integral part of the natural ecosystem and should remain on rangeland throughout the West rather than be herded into long-term holding pens.
A state wildlife agency sided with federal land managers, arguing in court papers last week that the mustangs have "severely degraded" the range and adversely affect Bighorn sheep and other wildlife that compete for scarce water resources in the drought-plagued region.
Friedman sided with roundup opponents in one aspect of his 25-page ruling. He said federal officials likely were violating federal law by stockpiling tens of thousands of horses in long-term holding facilities in the Midwest. The judge invited both sides to offer more legal arguments on the issue but said Congress ultimately may have to get involved.
Since the bureau has no money to euthanize the horses and no authority to hold them in a long-term facility, "it would face an inescapable conundrum" in conducting the roundup, Friedman said. The dispute is best solved by Congress, he added.
William Spriggs, a lawyer who argued against the roundup on behalf of California-based In Defense of Animals, said he was disappointed that Friedman allowed the roundup to go forward, but added: "I'm elated the judge at least bought one of our arguments."
Spriggs said President Barack Obama should issue a "holiday reprieve" for the mustangs and block the Nevada roundup until the legality of the long-term holding facilities is decided.
"The BLM's policy of stockpiling tens of thousands of horses in the Midwest - off their rightful Western ranges - is contrary to law, the intent of Congress and the will of the American people," Spriggs said.