Court Rules Against Sterilizing Entire Wild Horse Herd

In a major victory for federally protected wild horses and their public land habitat in Idaho, the District of Idaho on Friday held that the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) poorly considered decision to sterilize an entire wild horse herd was arbitrary and capricious and in violation of federal law. Our clients—the American Wild Horse Campaign, Return to Freedom, the Cloud Foundation, and Virginia Hudson—challenged the BLM’s decision to sterilize the entire Saylor Creek herd of wild horses, because the BLM had failed to consider authoritative scientific information showing that sterilization causes serious damage to wild horses’ behavior and herd dynamics. The court agreed, holding in our clients’ favor on virtually all of our legal claims. In particular, the court found that the BLM failed to consider scientific information that the agency itself had commissioned, and had failed to consider how its decision conflicts with the agency’s duties to maintain viable herds of wild horses and to preserve horses’ free-roaming behaviors. You can read the ruling here.

DC Circuit Vacates Forest Service’s Unlawful Decision to Exclude Federally Protected Wild Horses from Public Lands

Nearly two months after criticizing the Forest Service’s unexplained and arbitrary elimination of more than 23,000 acres of public lands in California from a longstanding wild horse territory, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit granted a rehearing petition our firm filed on behalf of several conservation organizations and individuals asking the court to vacate – i.e., set aside – the agency’s decision to ensure that the Forest Service would no longer exclude horses from this region.  In granting this rehearing petition and amending its earlier opinion, the D.C. Circuit sent a strong message to the Forest Service that it must manage these public lands in accordance with federal laws that afford these wild horses protection from death, harassment, or other forms of interference with their wild and free-roaming behaviors.  The court’s amended opinion can be found here

D. C. Circuit Rules That USDA Must Reconsider Decision to Renew the License of Chronic Violator of the Animal Welfare Act

For the first time in the history of the Animal Welfare Act, a court has ruled that the USDA may not renew a license of a chronic violator of the Act based on the exhibitor’s mere “certification” that it is in compliance with all Animal Welfare Act standards when the record before the agency shows that the exhibitor has habitually been cited for major violations of the statute.  With in-house counsel from the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), we represented ALDF and two women who had visited the Cricket Hollow Zoo in Iowa on several occasions and witnessed animals being deprived of water, clean cages, and basic veterinary care, as well as primates being housed in isolation from other primates.  Despite repeatedly citing the Zoo for AWA violations and internal USDA memoranda acknowledging that the Zoo was a “chronic” violator of the statute, the USDA kept perfunctorily renewing the Zoo’s AWA license each year claiming that the agency was required to do so under its regulations that provide for such renewals upon the payment of a renewal fee and a certification that the exhibitor is in compliance with all applicable AWA standards. Plaintiffs argued that this system violates the plain language of the AWA and that the issuance of this Zoo’s renewal license was arbitrary and capricious, particularly when the USDA knew that the certification was false.  Although the D.C. Circuit disagreed with our statutory argument, it nevertheless held that in light of the “smoking gun” evidence that this Zoo was repeatedly operating in violation of the AWA, including on the very day that it received its most recent license renewal, the district court erred in not determining whether the renewal decision was arbitrary and capricious.  The D.C. Circuit therefore reversed the district court on this aspect of the case and remanded the case for this determination.  A copy of the decision can be found here.

Suit Brought To Compel Trump Administration To Issue Critical Motor Vehicle Safety Standard to Protect Children from Death and Injury

Today on behalf of Kids and Cars, Inc. and the Center for Auto Safety, we filed a lawsuit in federal district court for the District of Columbia to compel the Secretary of Transportation (DOT) to issue a long overdue standard requiring a warning to go off if passengers in the back seats of cars are not wearing their seat belts, like the warning that is heard in cars if the driver is not wearing a seat belt.  In October 2012 Congress enacted legislation requiring DOT to initiate rulemaking for the rear seat warning system by October 2014 and to issue a final standard by October 2015.  To date, no rulemaking has even been initiated, and there is no sign that the Trump Administration is even working on the standard. DOT’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that 38 people each day who do not wear seat belts are killed in motor vehicle crashes each day, and that half of those would be alive if they had worn their seat belt—which means that 6,935 people each year would be saved if they wore their rear seat belt, or 13,879 since the standard was required to be in place. Many more people are seriously injured in crashes when they are not wearing seat belts. Parents put their children in the back seat believing it to be the safest position in the car.  Yet many parents forget to fasten their children’s seat belts, and children who are initially buckled in often remove their seatbelts.  Studies have confirmed that drivers using cars with seat belt reminders are 66% more likely to buckle up. Accordingly, prompt issuance of the standard mandated by Congress five years ago will unquestionably save many lives. The suit explains that by failing to comply with Congress’s mandated deadlines, DOT has “unreasonably delayed” and “unreasonably withheld” agency action required by law, and requests the federal court to order the Secretary to issue this critical safety standard. A copy of the Complaint can be found here:

DC Circuit Slams Forest Service’s Unexplained Decision to Reduce Public Lands for Wild Horse Management

Today, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, in a strongly worded ruling, agreed with our clients’ major objections to the U.S. Forest Service’s decision in 2013 to eliminate more than 23,000 acres in California’s Modoc National Forest from the Devil’s Garden Wild Horse Territory that had been home to federally protected wild horses for many decades.  Although the Forest Service argued that it could bypass crucial safeguards under the National Environmental Policy Act and the Administrative Procedure Act because the agency was merely correcting a purported “administrative error,” the court issued a stinging rebuke in finding that the Forest Service’s “head-in-the-sand approach” failed to “candidly confront the relevant environmental concerns” resulting from this significant shift in the agency’s management of these public lands.  We represent the American Wild Horse Campaign, Animal Legal Defense Fund, Return to Freedom, and wildlife advocates in this case.  The court’s opinion can be found here.

Photo courtesy of ReturntoFreedom.org

Court Holds that USDA Failed to Conserve Highly Endangered Southwestern Willow Flycatchers and Their Critical Habitat

After years of litigation, the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada ruled yesterday that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to adopt any conservation program to conserve the highly imperiled southwestern willow flycatcher and its critical habitat.  We filed suit on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity and Maricopa Audubon Society after USDA released hundreds of thousands of non-native, invasive beetles throughout the Southwest to defoliate saltcedar trees that provide nesting habitat to flycatchers, but when beetles decimated flycatcher habitat USDA merely terminated its program without implementing any mitigation measures to ameliorate the ongoing and long-lasting effects of its beetle release program.  On those facts, the court held that “USDA has not satisfied its ongoing obligations under [Endangered Species Act section] 7(a)(1) by simply terminating the beetle program found to adversely affect the flycatcher.”  USDA must now timely cure this major legal violation by adopting meaningful conservation measures to benefit this species and its habitat before it is driven to extinction.  The ruling can be found here.

Lawsuit Filed Regarding Risk of Earthquake-Induced Radioactive Contamination at Nuclear Weapons Facility in Tennessee

On behalf of several organizations and concerned citizens, we filed suit yesterday in federal district court to challenge the government’s failure to consider significant risks associated with the continued reliance on aging, deteriorating buildings for the production of nuclear weapons at the Y-12 Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Many of the buildings in this Complex, where the government processes highly enriched uranium for use in nuclear weaponry, were built during the Manhattan Project or the Cold War and do not meet modern building codes. As a result, these aging, increasingly decrepit buildings face a significant risk of collapsing, catching fire, and releasing hazardous nuclear contamination in the event of an earthquake—a risk that the United States Geological Survey recently stated is greater than it had previously expected.  The government had decided in 2011 to replace these aging, dangerous buildings with a modern facility, but when costs climbed, the government in 2016 decided to save money by continuing to rely on buildings with known structural deficiencies. Nevertheless, when the government opted to continue using these dilapidated buildings, it failed to examine the risk to the environment and to the public associated with the increased risk of earthquakes and the continued use of buildings that will likely collapse in the event that such an earthquake strikes.  On behalf of the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, Nuclear Watch of New Mexico, and several individuals who live near the Complex and would be harmed in the event that an earthquake causes radioactive contamination, our lawsuit seeks to compel the government to take a hard look at this important issue.  A copy of the complaint is here and a copy of a press release regarding the case is here.

Photo Credit: Brian Stansberry

Lawsuit Filed to Stop Army Corps from Permanently Degrading Our Nation’s Most Important Historic Setting

Yesterday, on behalf of the National Parks Conservation Association, we filed suit challenging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ issuance of a permit that allows Dominion Energy to construct and operate a massive commercial overhead transmission line and 17 associated towers—which will reach as tall as 295 feet—to cross the James River in eastern Virginia, marring what is perhaps the most important landscape related to our nation’s founding.  This industrial intrusion will be visible from several national park units—including Historic Jamestowne—as well as dozens of historic properties that are listed on the National Historic Register and/or the Virginia Register of Historic Landmarks.  Despite repeated calls from the public and the National Park Service to deny this permit, or at the very least meaningfully involve the public by preparing an Environmental Impact Statement to analyze both the substantial impacts that will result to nationally important resources, as well as feasible alternatives to the project that could eliminate or at least substantially reduce such impacts, the Corps refused to do so and instead prepared a less detailed Environmental Assessment without even circulating a draft analysis for public review and comment.  Our lawsuit raises various claims under the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Water Act.  The complaint can be viewed here, and our client’s press release can be viewed here.

Wild Horses Victorious in Utah

In a significant victory for wild horses in the West, a district court in Utah yesterday ruled in favor of our clients (the American Wild Horse Campaign, Return to Freedom, the Cloud Foundation, and Lisa Friday) and the Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”) in a lawsuit that sought to compel the agency to immediately remove thousands of wild horses from the range. We had intervened in this case to defend the agency’s decision to manage wild horse populations in a more humane manner over a longer period of time. Ultimately, our arguments carried the day, persuading the court that it should not take over the agency’s day-to-day management of this complex issue. This decision, along with other favorable rulings recently obtained by our firm, have cemented a strong precedent that there is no viable cause of action for disgruntled ranching interests to force BLM to remove wild horses from public lands to further skew the allocation of public resources in favor of domestic cattle and sheep grazing. You can read the decision here.