A new lawsuit brought forward by the Friends of Animals advocacy group seeks greater protections for the Pryor Mountain wild mustang herd than ever sought before. At the heart of the suit is the contention that the herd carries a unique genetic lineage dating back to historic Spanish heritage so worthy of preserving that it deserves the highest level of protected status under the Endangered Species Act.
“From our point of view, not just the Pryor Mountain horses but for all wild horses throughout the west, the Wild Horse and Burro Act isn’t cutting it,” said Michael Harris, FOA’s director of the Wildlife Law Program. “It just isn’t protecting the horses anymore. Instead, it has become more of a procedural hurdle for the BLM to do roundups and other types of population control. We find that really bothersome. There are some horses like the Pryor Mountain horses and the Pine Nut horse herd outside of Reno that are really special.”
Harris argues that managing the herd at such low population levels puts the group at risk.
“We’re afraid that BLM’s management at these really low population levels is going to eventually cause some real harm to this unique set of horses,” said Harris. “At some point, we’re going to get some really serious problems genetically, affecting their health and their make-up and may have to bring in other horses that alter the characteristics that make them unique. Fortunately, their isolation in some ways protects their heritage, but it also sets up a situation that if something goes wrong it will go wrong dramatically compared to wild horse populations elsewhere.”
Harris argues that the Bureau of Land Management’s primary focus on population commits little if any resources to preventing potential genetic problems.
“No one has the resources to monitor the genetic health of these animals,” said Harris. “So what don’t know is what’s going on in terms of inbreeding and whatever else they might be going through. It doesn’t take a whole lot to make them become susceptible to changes in their environment like weather, new diseases and other things…people know this. It’s a pretty standard understanding of population biology and genetics.”
An ESA designation would switch focus from preserving the land (a primary mission of the BLM) to preserving the horses, with more involvement by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife agency.
“The BLM has made it clear that their position is that the horses are feral and even invasive,” said Harris. “The reality is that doesn’t hold true anymore. We’ve seen a dramatic shift in the understanding of the nativeness of horses in America over the last five years or so. I think there’s a better understanding of the fossil record and the views of paleontologists on the issue. I don’t think the BLM is in the position to argue that anymore.
“I don’t think U.S. Fish and Wildlife has rejected the horses as wildlife. ..They did reject our previous lawsuit but never on the grounds that the wild horses weren’t somehow protectable under the
Endangered Species Act.”
The petition Harris is referring to asked for protections for all wild horses in the nation. The current focus is much more narrow and only affects the Pryor Mountain wild horse herd. The group has launched a similar petition to protect the bison herd in Yellowstone and, according to Harris, has seen some success in that petition, which makes similar arguments.
Harris noted that the group’s original wild mustang lawsuit was rejected entirely on “procedural grounds” because the group filed it at a federal level before filing it at a state level. The group has refiled the petition in theU.S. District Court of Montana and is challenging the legitimacy of being forced to do that before the petition was reviewed on its merits. He said he doesn’t expect the Montana court to decide on the petition until later this year.
The ESA designation would force the government to “rethink” how the horses are managed including the barriers that confine them to the range, population control methods like PZP darting of mares that produces temporary infertility, bait gathers to remove horses from the range and adoptions to private parties.
“To the extent that these things contribute to the impediment or existence of the species they would have to be looked at by federal agencies,” explained Harris. “One of the reasons the ESA is so powerful is that it does require us to look at our own interactions with the animals and how we are affecting them and, yes, it could very well determine that not allowing them to migrate and taking away certain needs from them will have to change.”
According to the group’s president, Priscilla Feral, the group disagrees with the BLM’s approach to manage the herd by the numbers.
“I’m not sure everything can be solved by listing them on the ESA,” said Feral, “but the harm that comes to them and the uncertainty that comes to them through roundups, maybe we can solve that. There isn’t enough forage there to leave the horses the way they are. Adjacent to where they are there seems to be a lot of advantages for cattle to graze.
“This is the last herd in Montana, for heaven’s sake. Why do they have to take this view that we can only have 90 to 120 of them in a population that is healthy enough that it can be preserved. It’s too small of a population, so the more they work at reducing it, the more in trouble these horses will be in.
“It’s crazy to think that Montana would want to lose the only herd it has, but that has been the desire of the BLM all along. They have been removing herds from one state after another, with no interest in putting them back on the land. They are in charge of telling what the numbers are and they
can inflate those or not. They alone tell us what too many is.”
Feral said she and other members of the group took the time to visit the range recently.
“We were on Pryor Mountain and we saw some horses but felt we should have seen a lot more…Yet they keep removing horses, adopting them out, which gives them an uncertain future,” said Feral. “Once they’re privatized, you can’t protect them any longer. We see that as miserable and we are in favor of any way our attorneys can challenge that process with interventions.”
Friends of Animals is an international animal protection organization originally founded in New York in 1957. The group, which is currently headquartered in Connecticut, advocates for the rights of animals, both “free-living and domestic” around the world.
By Patti Carpenter