RENO, Nev. (AP) — A federal judge cleared the way Friday for a Nevada tribe to sell hundreds of mustangs that critics say were gathered illegally from public rangelands and likely will end up at foreign slaughterhouses after an auction this weekend.
U.S. District Judge Miranda Du rejected horse advocates’ last-minute request for an emergency order to block Saturday’s auction.
The advocates claimed the horses are protected under the Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971. However, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management says the Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone Tribe is the horses’ rightful owner and there’s no evidence last week’s tribal roundup of more than 400 animals included any taken from BLM land in the area along the Nevada-Oregon line.
The judge ruled the horse advocates failed to show the BLM shirked its legal responsibility or offer evidence beyond “speculation” that any of the horses in pens awaiting auction at the Fallon Livestock Exchange about 60 miles east of Reno originated on federal land and deserve protection under U.S. law.
“Even assuming the court considered these allegations generously … the court still has concerns about jurisdiction to force BLM to intervene in a private sale,” Du said after an hour-long teleconference with lawyers for the horse advocates and the U.S. Justice Department.
Nevada state agriculture officials have acknowledged some of the horses likely will be purchased for slaughterhouses outside the U.S. if higher bidders don’t step up at the auction.
The Reno-based Wild Horse Education said in the emergency motion seeking a temporary restraining order that the BLM should be required to do DNA testing on the horses to prove their ownership.
Gordon Cowan, the group’s lead lawyer, told the judge Friday photographs of the horses show many carry no brands and either wandered onto reservation land or were rounded up while on federally protected rangeland.
“The fact it’s no longer on BLM property doesn’t mean it loses its protective status. It’s still a wild horse,” he said. “I may be wrong but there’s one way to check and it’s easy. You just have to pull some hair and have it analyzed.”
Group leader Laura Leigh, a photographer who has filed numerous lawsuits against the BLM in recent years, said they couldn’t secure firsthand proof many of the horses came from a herd protected in the BLM’s nearby Little Owyhee Horse Management Area because the agency denied third-party observation of the roundup.
“The court has allowed the policing agency to simply turn its head as wild horses are likely to be murdered,” Leigh said after Friday’s ruling.
Dan Bogden, U.S. attorney for Nevada representing the federal agencies, said in a court filing the advocates’ demand would amount to an illegal search and seizure of private property.
They effectively are asking the BLM to “halt a private sale of horses, seize and conduct genetic testing on all wild horses currently in private hands … sell horses that this accounting reveals to be genetically distinct from wild horses; and enjoin sovereign entities not currently before the court from removing wild horses from public land, an act which is already a criminal offense,” he wrote.
Du raised concerns that the horse advocates waited until the last minute to file a motion seeking the restraining order so as to create an emergency situation. She declined to hear arguments from lawyers for two other coalitions that also filed motions for emergency orders on Friday.
In one, the North Carolina-based American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, Wyoming-based Western Watersheds Project, Colorado-based Cloud Foundation and California-based Return to Freedom, said the government must take “all necessary steps to ensure that all wild horses currently located at the Fallon Livestock Exchange sale yard are identified and returned to the public lands as soon and as humanely as possible.”
In another, Citizens Against Equine Slaughter of Ashland, Ore., and Protect Mustangs of Berkeley, Calif., claimed that the federal agencies violated federal law by failing to conduct the necessary environmental analysis of the roundup’s potential impact to the range.
State brand inspectors said at least three-fourths of the 467 horses gathered have an identifiable brand and that others have been “identified by consensus through the tribe with affidavits to back up ownership.”
But preservation campaign spokeswoman Deniz Bolbol said tribal members could have staked claims after the fact on the approximately 100 unbranded horses that critics are convinced migrated off the BLM’s adjacent management area covering nearly 700 square miles.
“We’ve never been allowed to look at these horses independently,” she said.
Tribal chairperson Maxine Smart said all the horses gathered were on reservation land. She said some belonged to tribal members who died in recent years, and their families have claimed them.
Smart said an overpopulation of the animals is causing harm to the health of the range and posing a threat to public safety. She said she is disappointed critics are “spreading outright lies” about the operation.
“Our dignity is at risk,” she said. “We are proud. We love horses just as much as anybody, but when they pose problems to the rangelands and the roads on the reservation that becomes a concern to us.”