Our History Opposing Surgical Sterilization for Wild Mares

(March 3, 2021) Over the last four years, AWHC and its coalition partners filed successful litigation to block three previous attempts by the BLM to perform a controversial surgical procedure on wild mares in Oregon. The agency has now turned its sights on wild mares in Utah. In response, AWHC teamed up with Utah citizen and state wild horse expert Robert Hammer of WildHorseTourist.org to file suit to stop the BLM’s latest plan. 

At issue is the BLM’s decision to surgically sterilize mares captured from the Confusion Herd Management Area using the invasive and risky procedure, ovariectomy via colpotomy, despite the significant public and congressional outcry, veterinary opposition, and a National Academy of Sciences recommendation against using the surgery for the management of wild horses. 

What’s happening now?

Our case was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on December 10, 2020, by Eubanks and Associates, which has successfully represented us in numerous legal cases against the BLM. We’re already seeing results. The government confirmed to our attorneys that the BLM would not begin the surgeries until at least the end of August in order to allow the court time to consider the case. Previously the agency had intended to begin the surgeries at the end of June.  

This means that our case will continue on a schedule that will give the court a chance to issue a ruling before any mares are subjected to the procedure, and hopefully, they never will be!

How does the AWHC lawsuit differ from other legal actions filed to stop the experiments?

The AWHC lawsuit differs in several ways. First, it is filed in federal court in Washington, DC to address the program-wide implications of the agencies. 

Second, our co-plaintiff Rob Hammer has strong standing to sue on behalf of the Confusion horses, whom he has visited and photographed often in their public lands habitat. Third, our lawsuit is comprehensive in nature, addressing both the dangerous, inhumane, and unnecessary nature of the surgeries and the larger policy implications of the decision to implement them. These include the decision’s inconsistency with the agency’s overarching land-use plan for the area that includes the Confusion HMA, and the agency’s decision to drop consideration of the social acceptability of the procedure in its analysis of the impacts of the plan. In total, our complaint alleges that the decision violates four separate laws: the Administrative Procedures Act, the Wild Free-Roaming Horses, and Burros Act, National Environmental Policy Act, and the Federal Lands Policy and Management Act. 

There are two other actions filed against the experiments, but only one is a lawsuit. That action is filed by Return to Freedom in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. While well-intended, it is less comprehensive than AWHC’s complaint and is filed in a venue with far less direct connection to the legal challenge than Washington, D.C., which as the nation’s capital and the headquarters of the Department of Interior, is the appropriate forum for considering the lawfulness of the radical changes to wild horse population management embodied in this decision. As of March 3, 2021, this action has now been transferred to D.C. 

The second action is not a lawsuit. Wild Horse Education filed an administrative appeal with the Interior Board of Land Appeals (IBLA). When a decision record is finalized by the BLM, there is an appeal period with the agency. This is an administrative appeal, which unlike a lawsuit, must be filed within 30 days after the decision date. 

A lawsuit and an administrative appeal are two different and distinct avenues for challenging a government action. In AWHC’s experience,  administrative appeals on wild horse management decisions are not generally fruitful because the IBLA rarely rules against the agency. Thus, AWHC chose to file a lawsuit in federal court rather than an administrative appeal, a decision that our experienced environmental law firm advised had the best chances for accomplishing our goal to halt the BLM’s plans to surgically sterilize wild mares.

What’s Next? 

The Court granted the briefing schedule we proposed. This means that the briefing will be completed before the agency conducts any surgeries on wild mares in August.

How you can help!