A federal district court in Washington DC sounded the death knell for a legal challenge to the Bureau of Land Management’s controversial "gather" and relocation of wild mustangs from the Calico Mountains Complex in Nevada. Handed down on May 24, the Court’s decision cleared the way for the relocation of so-called "excess" wild horses from the Calico Mountains Complex.

Earlier this year, the Court denied a request for a preliminary injunction to prevent the wild horse round up from taking place. The gather went on as planned. The plaintiffs, which included the animal welfare organization In Defense of Animals, renewed that argument, and also claimed that the proposed relocation of wild horses violated the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act.

The Court found that claims challenging the legality of the round up were moot because the gather already had taken place and there was no relief to be granted. The second set of claims also failed because there was no link between the injuries asserted in the lawsuit and the BLM’s long-term plans to relocate the horses removed from the Complex.

Plaintiffs Terri Farley and Craig C. Downer submitted affidavits claiming that they were harmed by the round up and removal of a large number of wild horses from the Complex. They claimed that they planned to visit the area in the future to observe the horses in their natural habitat for both personal and professional interests, and that those interests would be impaired by reduced numbers in the herds. Even assuming that the claimed harm was sufficient to support the lawsuit, an assumption the Court made, the claim nevertheless failed. The asserted harm related to the round up of wild horses, which already had taken place, but not to any subsequent relocations, the Court said. The argument failed because the plaintiffs could not link their harm to the proposed relocations.

As in the earlier decision denying a preliminary injunction, the Court did not make any ruling—good or bad—about the merits of BLM gathers and relocations themselves. Instead, the Court merely decided it could not consider the lawsuit because the claims of harm were too speculative.

Under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, the BLM is charged with protecting and managing the nation’s wild horses and burros in a "manner that is designed to achieve and maintain a thriving natural ecological balance on the public lands." This includes making determinations of "appropriate" population levels and managing herds to achieve those levels. To accomplish this in the Calico Mountains Complex, the BLM initially determined that some 2,000-3,000 wild horses needed to be rounded up and moved.

When the dust had settled, 1,922 horses had been rounded up by the BLM from five herd management areas. The round up left an estimated 600 horses in the Complex, a number at the low end of the 600-900 horses that the BLM estimates to be an appropriate population for the area. The horses were moved to the Indian Lakes Facility near Fallon, Nevada for short-term holding, with the ultimate goal being adoption or permanent placement somewhere else.

BLM efforts in general, and the Calico Mountains Complex gather and round up in particular, have been subjects of heated criticism from horse protection groups across the country. So far, according to published reports, close to 100 of the horses "gathered" from the Complex by the BLM have died or have been euthanized. How many of those horses, if any, would have died from natural causes if left alone is anybody’s guess.

Dr. Eric Davis, Director of the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association Field Services visited the Indian Lake holding facility in March and reported that the "facilities were working well," that the staff was "skilled and dedicated to the welfare of the horses," that the condition of the horses was "improving," and that the preventive medical care is "adequate." It is dangerous to read too much into the report, however. It does not endorse the round up itself, only the aftermath, nor does it address the BLM's claimed need to gather and relocate the horses in the first place.

Dr. Davis concluded that "if horses are to be held in a feed yard like situation, the Indian Lakes facility and its staff does about as good a job as one could expect."

That is a very big "if." The relevant question may be: Is the solution to the "problem" worse than the problem itself?