Wildlife advocates on Wednesday asked a federal judge in Montana to stop a planned mustang roundup they argue would destroy the genetic viability of a herd descended from the mounts of Spanish conquistadors.
The Bureau of Land Management beginning Sunday intends to remove 17 of the roughly 150 horses on the 59-square mile (154-square kilometer) Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range along the Montana-Wyoming border.
A lawsuit filed in federal court by Colorado filmmaker Ginger Kathrens and the Cloud Foundation, an advocacy group, said removing the horses would eliminate some of the Pryor herd’s unique genetic qualities, by eliminating animals with rare or unusual color patterns.
“I have known each of these horses since they were tiny foals…I know all of their names,” Kathrens said in an affidavit. “Their removal would be devastating.”
U.S. District Judge Susan Watters did not immediately rule on a request to temporarily halt the roundup.
The 17 horses would be baited into corrals with food and water and later put up for adoption.
Officials have maintained for years that the Pryor herd is too large for the arid, sparsely-vegetated range and have been overgrazing areas.
Delaying the roundup would lead to increased costs and, because of breeding, an even bigger problem for the range’s managers next year, said BLM wild horse specialist Jerrie Bertola.
If the population gets much larger, Bertola said, there’s more likelihood of fighting between animals and would be greater competition for forage, which could lead to some animals dying.
Created in 1968, the Pryor range was the second horse preserve in the nation. It was formed at a time when the capture and slaughter of wild horses for profit faced rising criticism, culminating three years later in the federal Wild and Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act.
Across the U.S. wild horses and burros now far exceed U.S. government population goals, with 82,000 free-roaming horses and burros on almost 50,000-square miles of land in the West. About 46,000 wild horses and 1,600 burros are being held at government corrals and pastures, costing taxpayers $50 million annually.