LAS VEGAS -- The 148 horses stand in corrals outside a rural Nevada auction house, awaiting their fate as a legal battle continues to swirl over whether the animals are domestic horses that can legally go to slaughter or wild mustangs that deserve the government's protection.
On Wednesday, a U.S. District Court in Reno lifted a temporary restraining order barring the sale of unbranded horses captured by the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Tribe last month under an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service.
Animal advocates say 400 horses were removed from public and tribal lands in northern Nevada and shipped to a slaughter auction in Fallon.
Following testimony from both sides, Judge Miranda Du ruled the U.S. Forest Service acted appropriately in determining the Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone Tribe is the animals' rightful owner and can't be stopped from selling them.
Part of the testimony involved whether the animals exhibited wild behavior.
Chris Miller, a Nevada brand inspector, told the court the animals were tame.
"They didn't want to try to escape from us, which you'd expect a wild horse to do," Miller told the court. "We were able to walk among them within a few feet and the horses were not excited."
But animal advocates tell a different story.
Deniz Bolbol of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, who also testified before Du, told the Los Angeles Times on Thursday that the creatures were definitely wild.
"I spent three hours inspecting those horses and not one of them came over to be petted," she said. "Just the opposite, they exhibited all the behavior of wild animals, lowering their heads, backing to the far ends of the pen."
On Saturday more than 240 branded horses from the catch were auctioned off but the legal order precluded any horses without brands to go before buyers.
Animal activists say they must now negotiate with the tribe to purchase the remaining 148 horses.
"The tribe is looking for the highest price," Bolbol told The Times. "If the advocates don't get them, the kill-buyers will."
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In a statement, Bolbol's group regretted Wednesday's court decision.
"We are saddened by Judge Du's ruling because it means the tribe can sell these wild horses for slaughter. While we respect the Judge's process, we are disappointed at the actions of the federal government, which is absolutely complicit in this debacle," the statement said.
"The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) have egregiously failed to protect wild horses on federal lands surrounding a protected Herd Management Area. Just because a wild horse wanders outside a designated Herd Management Areas, it does not, under the law, lose federal protections. Yet that is exactly what happened here.
"This is how America's wild horses can end up at slaughter."
For now, the remaining animals are at the Fallon Livestock Exchange about 60 miles east of Reno, awaiting the results of the latest round of horse trading.