BILLINGS — Animal rights advocates announced a lawsuit against the federal government on Wednesday in a bid to make a Montana mustang population the first group of wild horses to be protected under the Endangered Species Act.
The Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range just north of the Wyoming border is home to about 155 mustangs believed to be descended from the mounts of Spanish conquistadors who came to North America in the 1500s.
Attorneys for Friends of Animals argued in their lawsuit that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service violated federal law by failing to act on a petition filed last June seeking protections for the animals.
The Connecticut-based group wants U.S. District Judge Susan Watters to force officials to act on its petition within 60 days.
The move comes two years after federal wildlife officials rejected a proposal from the group for protections for tens of thousands of mustangs on federal lands across 10 Western states.
In that case, officials determined there were no marked behavioral differences between wild horses and their domestic cousins.
Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Robert Segin said there have been no previous cases of horses receiving protections under the 1973 Endangered Species Act. He had no immediate comment on the Montana lawsuit.
The Pryor Mountain horses are subject to periodic roundups to keep their numbers in check, with some of the animals captured by the Bureau of Land Management put up for adoption.
The last such roundup was in 2015, with another planned for this year, said bureau spokesman Mark Jacobs. The bureau manages the Pryor Mountain range in conjunction with the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service.
Federal officials have sought for the past decade to reduce the herd’s size to prevent overgrazing.
Created in 1968, the Pryor range was the second horse preserve in the nation. It was formed at a time when the capture and slaughter of wild horses for profit faced rising criticism, culminating three years later in the federal Wild and Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act.