After a five year legal battle with Colorado-based wild horse advocacy groups over issues related to how the BLM manages wild mustangs in the Pryor Mountains, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled in favor of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM)-Billings Field Office.
“On April 9, 2014 U.S. Department of Justice confirmed that the court ruled in favor of the BLM in all challenges of the lawsuit, which means the Herd Management Area Plan and appropriate horse population continue to be in effect, and the U.S. Forest Service’s decision to reconstruct the north boundary fence was upheld,” stated the BLM in a press release issued this week.
“We are pleased with the U.S. District Court’s findings and our focus is on the future and continuing our work with The Cloud Foundation and other groups to manage for healthy wild horses and healthy rangelands in the Pryors,” said Jim Sparks, BLM Billings Field Manager.
The original suit filed in 2009 by two Colorado-based wild horse advocacy groups, The Cloud Foundation and Front Range Equine Rescue, attempted to halt the BLM’s ongoing practice of removing excess wild horses from the 31,000-acre Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range located on the Montana-Wyoming border just outside of Lovell.
According to the BLM release, the Colorado-based advocacy groups later amended their lawsuit to also challenge the BLM’s Herd Management Area Plan and boundary for the range, the appropriate population level for the wild horse herd and a U.S. Forest Service decision to reconstruct the north boundary fence of the Herd Management Area.
“The lawsuit is between the Cloud Foundation and the Custer National Forest and the BLM. The heart of the issue is the forest service fence which restricts the horses from using the best of the range—the high elevation grazing,” explained Ginger Kathrens, executive director of the Cloud Foundation. “As a result, the herd is smaller than it could be if there was access to this area. We brought the forest service into the suit when they issued a call for bids to build the new fence in 2010. That was a new action and we were no longer barred by statute of limitations, as this was a current action. Range expansion is very important since the Pryor herd is small and isolated and vulnerable to genetic decline.”
Kathrens said her group has already taken steps to appeal the ruling.
“The Pryor herd is one of the oldest in the West, is a unique genetic link to the Spanish Colonial horse, and is a closed herd (i.e. no access from an adjoining herd),” she said. “Although the herd appears to be strong with remarkable longevity, there have been several cases of limited vision or blindness with at least two fillies, one removed in 2009 and the other in 2012. There have been some issues with cryptorchids with one of the stallions we bought in 2009 and with another stallion removed and adopted in 2006. Hernias have also been observed in the herd. They may also be associated with narrowing genetics.
“I do not know if this is because of inbreeding suppression or not. Obviously, when you have a small, closed herd there is more likelihood that individuals will be more closely related. TCF would like to see the herd managed at higher numbers, but that is difficult based on the acreage available for their use. Range expansion is vital to the long term survival of the herd.”
In response to the court decision and the appeal, local advocates at the Pryor Mountain Wild Mustang Center in Lovell released the following statement: “The Mustang Center has historically supported the expansion of the range to include Tony Island, an important water source just west of the present boundary. This expansion would include the removal of the recently constructed fence.
“We believe the way to accomplish this would be to bring all stakeholders into a discussion to build a common understanding of each other’s needs and concerns, as well as find workable management solutions. However, this type of discussion is difficult when some of the stakeholder groups are dealing with litigation regarding these very issues.
“For many years, the Mustang Center has supported and contributed to the BLM-Billings Field Office with planning and decision-making regarding the Pryor Horses. We urge a collaborative effort to bring the various federal, private sector organizations and individuals to the table to discuss best measures to ensure the health and sustainability of both the Pryor Mountain Wild Horses and the Pryor Mountain ecosystem.”
By Patti Carpenter