Building a Firewall for Wild Horses: AWHC's Ovariectomy Lawsuit

Brieanah Schwartz | September 30, 2019

One of the more egregious plans the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has released for “management” of wild horses is the ovariectomy via colpotomy experiments. This outdated procedure is a blind surgery in which a veterinarian inserts his arm into a mares’ abdominal cavity through an incision in the vaginal wall, manually locates the ovaries, then twists, severs and removes them using a rod-like tool with a chain on the end. The procedures are clearly unscientific, inhumane and dangerous, and will result in pain, suffering and potentially life-threatening complications for wild mares.

As soon as we got wind of the BLM’s plans for the mares from the Warm Springs Herd Management Area (HMA) in Oregon, we filed suit to protect the welfare interests of the wild mares and protect them from inhumane experimentation. Below is a brief history of our involvement and the most recent information we have on the BLM’s pursuit. With your support, we will never give up on these mares and will continue to fight the BLM in court.

In 2016, the BLM planned to conduct a series of sterilization experiments on wild mares at the agency’s corral facility in Hines, Oregon. The experiments on 225 wild mares were set to be conducted by the staff of Oregon State University (OSU). The study implemented three sterilization techniques: (1) ovariectomy via colpotomy, (2) tubal ligation, and (3) hysteroscopically guided laser ablation of the oviduct papilla. A primary goal of the BLM’s plan was to determine the “social acceptability” of each type of sterilization procedure. Yet, the BLM refused to allow any public observation of the procedures.

In 2018, the BLM chose to move forward with similar sterilization experiments. However, this time the agency has chosen to only perform ovariectomy via colpotomy on wild mares at the agency’s corral facility in Hines, Oregon. The experiments on 100 wild mares were set to involve the staff of Colorado State University (CSU). However, after the close of the comment period on the EA, CSU withdrew from participation in the study. Without CSU, the BLM had no plan to conduct welfare observations of the mares during the procedures. This is a critical component to aiding the agency in determining whether or not the procedures are humane as required of all BLM’s wild horse management under the WHA.

In contrast to its 2016 plan, the BLM allowed for limited public observation. However, the provisions that the BLM has provided are extremely inadequate and still infringed on our First Amendment rights. 

The BLM released yet another EA in pursuit of the ovariectomy via colpotomy experiments. At this point the mares have been in holding for roughly a year since the roundup and have had their foals in holding, meaning that none of the mares would be pregnant at the time of the procedures. Therefore, the major difference between the last 2018 EA and this one was the disclosure that mares would not be pregnant at the time of the experiments. 

However, this seemingly small detail greatly impacted the BLM’s original purpose for the experiments in the first place. The experiments were meant to test the feasibility, morbidity, and mortality of the ovariectomy via colpotomy procedure in mares recently removed from the range so that the BLM could determine if this procedure was a viable management tool. As we know, mares that are rounded up from the range are usually in some stage of pregnancy. Therefore, performing the experiments on open, or non-pregnant mares, would not accomplish the goals of the agency to determine whether they could implement this procedure in the field - where the mares are in some stage of pregnancy. 

Further, the EA was devoid of any consideration for what effects the procedure would have to young, nursing foals and their mothers when the mothers undergo such an invasive and inhumane procedure. 

Finally, the 2019 EA made no attempt to accommodate better viewing or observation and aftercare for the mares. The BLM instead asked commenters to explicitly state what they wanted in terms of observation. Even though our granted preliminary injunction (PI) motion from the 2018 EA made these needs clear, we explicitly stated what the agency should do in our comments on this EA.

Our Lawsuit Now

After defeating the 2016 plan in court with a PI, we again took to the courts in response to the 2018 plans. AWHC joined forces with The Cloud Foundation and Ginger Kathrens for this lawsuit, and now we are also joined by the Animal Welfare Institute and Carol Walker, a wild horse photographer (collectively the Plaintiffs). On September 21, 2018 Plaintiffs filed a complaint and PI in the Federal District Court of Oregon to challenge the BLM’s decision to seriously limit public access to observe and document these sterilization experiments.

The judge granted the motion for a Preliminary Injunction on two of the three counts raised in our motion. This action halted the experiments, which were scheduled to begin November 5, 2018 and the government later abandoned the experiments as a result. Shortly after this development, appropriations lapsed and the federal government shutdown. The government filed a motion to stay (pause) the case until the government was open again, and the court granted the motion. 

When the government reopened, the government filed a motion to dismiss the case. However, around the same time, the BLM released the 2019 EA. Since this EA implemented none of the observation considerations which granted us our PI, we decided to file a motion for a stay until the final decision was released. If the agency moved forward with a substantially similar plan like the one which the judge had just reviewed, we would want to notify the court of this event. The judge granted our motion to stay until the BLM releases its final decision. This means that our lawsuit remains on pause until we have the chance to see what, if anything, the BLM has changed in the final 2019 EA decision.

In the meantime, both parties are providing court-ordered updates on the status of the decision and the case. As of today, the BLM has not released a final decision on the 2019 EA. The next update is due in November 2019

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Brieanah Schwartz is Policy Counsel for the American Wild Horse Campaign.  Schwartz received her J.D. from the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law in Baltimore, Maryland and graduated with a concentration in Environmental Law. She is now barred in the District of Columbia. Brieanah is responsible for advancing AWHC’s position before Congress and this administration, for producing comments that AWHC submits, and for assisting the litigation teams on all of AWHC’s active cases. A long-time lover of wild horses, she self-published a book with her photography and research on the Cumberland Island wild horses while she attended Sweet Briar College in Sweet Briar, Virginia. She currently resides in Washington, D.C. area with her horse, Eire, dogs, Lady, Drover, and Dandy, and kitten, Pippy.