RENO, Nev. (AP) — A federal judge on Wednesday temporarily banned the U.S. Bureau of Land Management from using helicopters to gather many of the hundreds of mustangs targeted in a roundup already under way about 150 miles northeast of Reno.
U.S. District Judge Howard McKibben granted part of a temporary restraining order sought by horse protection advocates who say the BLM's own rules prohibit helicopter roundups during foaling season. He said he would allow it to continue in the southern half of the Jackson Mountains because BLM has proven an emergency due to drought.
But he said that emergency doesn't stretch to the northern half of the target area covering a total of more than 400 square miles east of the Black Rock Desert. He said no helicopters can be used there at least until the foaling season ends July 1.
Last summer, the same judge issued a temporary order prohibiting aircraft use at another roundup in Nevada after horse advocates caught one helicopter on camera flying too close to animals, which was in violation of federal law.
Both orders were obtained in connection with a larger lawsuit filed by Laura Leigh of Minden, Nev., the founder of Wild Horse Education, an Internet clearinghouse for information on roundups.
Leigh argued the federally protected horses have more of a right to remain on the range than do sheep and cattle, which continue to feed in the area under the authority of federal grazing permits despite drought concerns.
"The BLM has put no restrictions in either the north or the south on grazing by other animals," said Gordon Cowan, her Reno-based lawyer. He said after Wednesday's ruling that McKibben seems to have "an uncommon passion" for the wild horse cases.
"I think Judge McKibben understands that not all actions the BLM undertakes are justified. He noted, within the BLM's own documents, some actions were justified while others were not," Cowan told The Associated Press.
Nevada is home to about half of the estimated 37,000 wild horses and burros that were roaming 10 western states as of February. The BLM argued that's about 10,000 more than the range can sustain region-wide.
The BLM wants to round up more than 600 of the 900-plus counted in the Jackson Mountain Horse Management area in northern Nevada's Humboldt County. It already has gathered more than 300 — strictly from the southern end of that Horse Management Area, which measures about 60 miles by 35 miles.
Leigh cited experts who say the horses in the north are a distinct herd from the horses in the south, separated by mountains with elevations approaching 10,000 feet.
"Nowhere in the record ... does BLM say an emergency exists in the north," Cowan said.
The judge agreed, saying the agency did a thorough job establishing the emergency in the southern area due to lack of water, plants and general drought conditions. But he said that wasn't the case in the northern area and that a blanket emergency declaration wasn't warranted.
"The public interest clearly is served best by having the BLM comply with its regulations where there are not emergency declarations," McKibben said, referring to rules intended to help protect pregnant mares and young foals from stress induced by helicopter-generated stampedes.
Erik Petersen, a Justice Department lawyer representing BLM, said during a teleconference piped into McKibben's courtroom that the agency fears drought will force horses in the south to migrate north.
It wasn't immediately clear how many horses would be affected by McKibben's new order.
Petersen said the ruling wouldn't have much impact because BLM likely would still be concentrating on horses in the southern area prior to July 1.