“We reject the argument that all horses anywhere in New Mexico are livestock”
An appellate court has revived a lawsuit that sought to have a Placitas horse herd declared wild under state law, a ruling described by an advocacy group as a “huge victory” that would allow the animals to continue to roam freely and stop their roundups and sale.
“We reject the argument that all horses anywhere in New Mexico are livestock” simply because some horses are considered livestock, the court said.
The opinion by the New Mexico Court of Appeals interprets the Livestock Code and provisions involving “estrays” – the legal term for unclaimed domestic animals – as “pertain(ing) only to domesticated horses rather than wild, free-roaming horses.” It says the body of animal-related laws in the code requires the New Mexico Livestock Board to DNA test and relocate wild horses. And it sends the case back to the lower court for proceedings consistent with the decision.
The Wild Horse Observers Association, which brought the suit in February 2014, has advocated for the horses to continue roaming freely, while some Placitas residents have argued the horses have damaged the land and are a safety hazard.
The opinion last week by Appeals Court Judge Jonathan Sutin, joined by Judges Michael Bustamante and Cynthia Fry, reversed a trial court in Albuquerque.
Second Judicial District Judge Valerie Huling of Albuquerque had dismissed the lawsuit in July 2014 at the request of the state Livestock Board and a group of individual interveners who live in Placitas.
Wild Horse Observers, in its initial complaint, said the horses have never been owned or claimed by any private landowner, rancher, horse rescue group or Indian tribe. The unbranded horses – 40 at the time of filing – have roamed on public land near Placitas since at least 1965, according to the association.
About 25 of the horses were impounded and auctioned by the Livestock Board, which contended the horses were not wild and that carving out a wild horse exception to livestock laws would mean they weren’t subject to transportation, inspection and anti-cruelty laws.
The Court of Appeals said the board is required by statute to search for the owners of stray livestock for the benefit of the legal owner. State law requires that a wild horse captured on public land to have its DNA tested, and if it tests positive as a Spanish colonial, to be relocated to a state or private wild horse reserve. If it isn’t a Spanish colonial, it must be returned to public land or put up for adoption by the agency on whose land it was captured – in this case, the 560-acre Placitas Open Space managed by the City of Albuquerque’s Open Space Division.
Livestock Board executive Director William Bunch said, “Essentially, this appeal is trying to force regulation based on an incomplete genetic foundation. So it’s going to be hard to enforce. Certainly we will try to comply.”
Wild Horse Observers Association hailed the ruling said on its website as “a huge victory.”
“This appellate court decision has far-reaching ramifications for the historic and beloved wild horses of Placitas on further roundups, auctions and sale, use of PZP contraception for herd management, DNA testing and more,” the statement said.