RENO, Nevada — Saying they don't have money or room to corral many more wild horses, federal land managers have sided with horse advocates in calling for the dismissal of a lawsuit demanding acceleration of roundups.
Interior Department lawyers also said in their motion that the lawsuit by ranchers and others doesn't pass legal muster.
The motion filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Reno targets the suit by the Nevada Association of Counties and Nevada Farm Bureau Federation. It came on the heels of a separate motion to dismiss filed for different reasons by horse protection advocates.
Lawyers for the department's Bureau of Land Management emphasized the agency has broad discretion to manage federal land as it sees fit, and agreed with the ranchers' contention that current herds are overpopulated and threaten the ecological integrity of the range.
But they said BLM is hamstrung by budget cuts, and a congressional ban on the sale of excess horses for slaughter has pushed their holding facilities to the brink of capacity.
"BLM has been largely unable to dispose of excess horses other than through qualifying adoptions and sales, even as demand for horses has declined," Justice Department lawyers wrote.
"Congress has necessarily funded and endorsed BLM's use of long-term holding facilities to house excess horses until demand for sale or adoption increases, or until Congress lifts its prohibitions on the humane destruction of healthy excess animals," the attorneys said in their filing.
Last year, the number of horses in holding facilities exceeded the estimated population on the range for the first time since President Nixon signed the Wild Free-Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act in 1971.
BLM estimated in March there were 49,209 wild horses and burros roaming free in 10 western states — half in Nevada. The agency maintains that's 45 percent more than the range can sustain. It reported in April that 48,194 animals were in holding facilities with a total capacity of 52,138.
In its lawsuit, the Nevada Farm Bureau argues the overpopulation on the range "has severe impacts on the health of the horses as well as the ecological health and sustainability of Nevada's rangelands."
Mustang advocates filed their motion to dismiss the suit based largely on past rulings that shot down their own legal challenges to BLM's wild horse policies. The suit is an attempt by ranchers "to create a legal facade to give the BLM an excuse to cave in to their interests and remove more mustangs," said Suzanne Roy of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign.
The government's motion says BLM has appealed to Congress for help for years in the face of repeated warnings from internal inspectors and outside auditors that the agency's program was unsustainable.
Last summer, Joan Guilfoyle, chief of BLM's Wild Horse and Burro Division, warned in an internal memo obtained by The Associated Press that the $70 million program was headed for financial collapse unless drastic changes were made in the roundup policy that she said could be setting U.S. rangeland-improvement goals back 20 years.