RENO (AP) - A day after announcing it would scale back costly roundups of wild horses across the West, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management abruptly halted a controversial gather of mustangs in northeastern Nevada.
The roundup ended Friday with the removal of 1,368 horses from the range in the 1.3 million-acre Antelope Complex about 60 miles south of Wells, which was short of the agency's goal of gathering about 2,000 mustangs there, said BLM spokeswoman Heather Jasinski.
She said the halt to the roundup that began on Jan. 23 had nothing to do with BLM Director Bob Abbey's announcement Thursday that the agency will reduce the number of wild horses removed from the range by about one-quarter - to 7,600 a year.
The action also didn't stem from a Feb. 16 House vote in favor of an amendment to cut the agency's budget by $2 million to protest the roundups, she added.
It was called off because of high winds that frequently grounded a helicopter used to herd horses, Jasinski said, and the dispersal of mustangs into smaller groups that made them more difficult to gather.
"That's all it was - a combination of those factors made it harder to gather horses in this area," she said. "It's been a successful gather."
But some horse activists say the roundup may have been called off because the BLM and a contractor were having difficulty locating horses in the complex, raising questions about the validity of census data upon which the agency bases its management decisions and the true number of mustangs on the range.
"Another reason may be the BLM's current attempts to appease Congress and the public as they make a bid for millions of dollars to fund more roundups," said Ginger Kathrens, director of the Colorado-based horse advocacy group Cloud Foundation. "It is a huge relief to know that the horrific Antelope roundup had been called off."
Animal rights activists complain that the roundups - which include the use of helicopters - are inhumane because some animals are traumatized, injured or killed.
Nine horses died in the Nevada roundup - five of pre-existing conditions and four related to the gather, Jasinski said.
BLM officials said the agency has a mandate under federal law to remove "excess" horses to sustain the health of herds, rangelands and wildlife. It was determined the complex can handle only 427 to 788 of the animals.
The BLM offers horses gathered from the range for adoption to the public. Those too old or considered unadoptable are sent to long-term holding facilities in the Midwest, where they can live for decades.
Activists said it made more sense financially to leave the horses on the range on two ranches - in and around the Antelope Complex - that the wife of oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens purchased to serve as a mustang sanctuary.
"The BLM could have postponed the roundup until fall in order to take advantage of philanthropist Madeleine Pickens' cost-savings alternative to house Antelope horses on her private lands adjacent to their home range instead of shipping them thousands of miles to distant government holding facilities," said Suzanne Roy, director of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign.
The BLM earlier rejected Pickens' proposal to accept some of the mustangs, saying it wouldn't save taxpayers' money and it didn't include enough water and forage for the animals.
Some 33,700 wild horses roam freely in 10 Western states, with about half the animals in Nevada. An additional 40,000 horses are cared for in government-funded holding facilities.