Protection of Wild Horses

Photo by Christine Mendoza

Through this litigation, AWI and other groups seek to prevent the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) from conducting surgical sterilization experiments on federally protected wild horses in Oregon. In May of 2018, the BLM announced that it intended to revive a portion of a discarded 2016 research proposal that would use a controversial and outdated procedure known as ovariectomy via colpotomy to permanently sterilize 100 wild mares from the Warm Springs Herd Management Area (HMA). 

The procedure, which involves manually twisting, severing, and removing ovaries via an incision in the mares’ vaginal walls, carries risks of infection, trauma, and death. In September 2018, the BLM adopted a record of decision (ROD) approving the experiments. Experimental goals included measuring how much pain the mares would experience, how often horses subjected to the procedure would be injured or die, and how often the foals of pregnant mares undergoing the surgery would be aborted. The mares subjected to ovariectomies via colpotomy would have remained conscious during the surgery and no postoperative antibiotics would have been given, despite the surgery being conducted in potentially nonsterile conditions, thereby increasing the risk of infections and complications. For horses returned to the range, no further veterinary interventions would be undertaken. The BLM intended to conduct this research in part to assess the feasibility of employing ovariectomy via colpotomy as a management tool to control populations of free-roaming wild horses across the country.

Case Name: Ginger Kathrens, et al. v. Ryan Zinke, et al., Case No. 18-cv-1691

Nature of Case: In September 2018, AWI and others filed a lawsuit challenging the BLM’s ROD that approved the experiments as well as a motion for a preliminary injunction seeking to prevent the BLM from proceeding with the experiments at the BLM’s Wild Horse Corral Facility in Hines, Oregon. The lawsuit asserts that the BLM’s adoption of the ROD violated plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights, the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act (WHA), the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The plaintiffs were represented by the public interest law firm Meyer, Glitzenstein and Eubanks LLP.

Plaintiffs alleged that the BLM’s refusal to allow meaningful observation by independent observers, including licensed veterinarians, violated plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights to view and document the experiments so that the public could better evaluate the BLM’s management of federally protected wild horses. Plaintiffs also argued that the BLM contravened the WHA and the APA by failing to partner with an academic or research institution to help monitor the procedure and provide follow-up welfare assessments of the horses who underwent the surgery. Originally, the experiments were to be overseen by Colorado State University (CSU), but amid public scrutiny CSU withdrew from its partnership with the BLM in August 2018. This withdrawal—and the absence of the welfare data that CSU was going to gather—impairs the BLM’s ability to determine the procedure’s outcomes and feasibility and contravenes the WHA, which consistently emphasizes treating wild horses humanely. Lastly, the complaint asserted that the BLM violated NEPA by neglecting to consider other forms of fertility control that are more humane and have a proven track record of success. NEPA requires federal agencies to assess the environmental impacts of certain proposed actions and is designed to ensure that agencies engage in fully informed decision-making, which includes consideration of a reasonable range of alternatives.

On November 2, 2018, the court heard oral argument on the motion for a preliminary injunction. The court issued a preliminary injunction to stop the agency from proceeding, ruling that plaintiffs were likely to prevail on claims that the BLM’s restrictions on public observation of the procedures violated their First Amendment rights, and that the BLM’s lack of inquiry into whether the sterilization procedure was “socially acceptable” was arbitrary and capricious. The judge also noted that plaintiffs raised serious concerns regarding the BLM’s abandonment of CSU’s experimental protocols for monitoring the welfare of the horses who would be subjected to the experiment.

On November 7, 2018, the BLM announced it would not proceed with the experiments and would remand the ROD to the Interior Board of Land Appeals (IBLA) so that the IBLA could vacate the decision authorizing the experiment. On November 26, 2018, the IBLA formally vacated the ROD, noting that, in view of the court’s ruling in favor of AWI and its co-plaintiffs, the BLM would no longer move forward with the experiment. However, the BLM then reversed course by issuing an Environmental Assessment in May 2019 that proposed a nearly identical experimental procedure, on which Plaintiffs submitted comments. Defendants also moved to dismiss the lawsuit. Plaintiffs filed a response to the motion to dismiss, as well as a motion to stay the lawsuit in May 2019. The Court granted the motion to stay the case.

In February 2020, Defendants filed a motion to lift the stay. Defendants argued that in order to conduct a spay study, the agency would have to initiate a new NEPA process, with a new comment period. In light of this, Plaintiffs’ agreed that dismissal would be appropriate so long as the agency withdrew the 2019 proposal. At a hearing in March 2020, the Court lifted the stay and granted the Defendants’ motion to dismiss.

Through this litigation, AWI achieved our goals by preventing the experiments proposed in 2018 and 2019 from going forward. If BLM proposes a similar experiment in the future, AWI will continue to engage on this issue to ensure that wild horses and burros are treated humanely.

Court: US District Court for the District of Oregon, Portland Division

Plaintiffs: Animal Welfare Institute, American Wild Horse Campaign, The Cloud Foundation, Ginger Kathrens, and Carol Walker

Defendants: Ryan Zinke, Secretary of the Department of the Interior; Brian Steed, Deputy Director of the Bureau of Land Management; Jeff Rose, District Manager for the BLM Burns District Office; and Jamie Connell, Oregon State Director for the Bureau of Land Management

Status: Closed

Selected Case Documents

Administrative Comments and Decisions

Selected Case Media

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