Pryor Mountain wild horses

The Pryor Mountain wild horses.

Gazette Staff

A federal judge in Billings has ruled that the Bureau of Land Management used outdated information when it decided to remove wild horses last year as part of a population management plan at the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range.

U.S. District Judge Susan Watters in a July 29 ruling said BLM’s reliance on the outdated management plan in making a decision that the range had excess horses that needed removal was “arbitrary and capricious.” Her order set aside the agency’s decision.

Watters’ ruling favored the Friends of Animals, a Connecticut-based advocacy group. The organization sued BLM last year after the agency said it would gather and permanently remove 20 young wild horses and continue removing six to 12 wild horses annually.

“We are thrilled the court didn’t let the BLM get away (with) violating the law,” said Jennifer Best, associate director of FoA’s Wildlife Law Program.

Watters’ ruling, Best said, recognizes “that BLM was removing wild horses from the Pryor Mountains before considering a reasonable alternative — determining what the appropriate population for the area is and whether the range could potentially support more wild horses.”

The judge’s order also found that BLM could “not ignore its promise to the public to do a more thorough analysis of the Appropriate Management Level before removing wild horses,” Best continued.

An AML, as defined by the agency, is the number of horses that can be sustained within a designated herd management area that maintains “a thriving natural ecological balance in keeping with the multiple-use management concept for the area.”

“I hope this decision sends a signal to the BLM that it cannot get away with ignoring its commitments and duties to protect these amazing wild animals, who are actually underpopulated,” Best said.

FoA alleged BLM violated federal laws by basing its 2015 Pryor Mountain horse removal decision on an outdated 2009 Herd Management Area Plan that established an appropriate management horse population of 90 to 120 wild horses. The appropriate management number, the group said, was based on a 2007 range evaluation, which the BLM was supposed to recalculate within five years.

BLM admitted it has not re-calculated the appropriate management level number since its 2009 decision.

Alyse Backus, a spokeswoman for the BLM, said on Wednesday a judgment had not yet been issued in the case and that BLM could not comment on pending litigation.

Backus said the 2015 horse removal did occur. The judge earlier denied FoA’s request for a preliminary injunction.

Watters’ ruling noted that BLM had stated in its 2009 decision that it would recalculate the appropriate management level within five years. “The Court finds that federal regulations, case law and its own representations to the public bind BLM to this commitment,” she said.

“By operating with an outdated AML when it made its 2015 decision, BLM’s excess animal determination was based, at least in part, on pure guesswork,” the judge wrote.

The Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range consists of more than 38,000 acres of desert, forest and high mountain meadows. There are no livestock grazing leases on the range, which was established in 1968 for exclusive use by wild horses and other wildlife. The herd is believed to be descended from horse used by Spanish conquistadors.

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Federal court and county reporter for The Billings Gazette.