LAS VEGAS -- Another showdown is looming between the federal government and animal advocates over the wild horses that wander the American West.
Last week, 486 horses were gathered from the Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone reservation in northern Nevada during a three-day roundup.
Tribal officials say the animals were traditional pests that cost them money to maintain. But wild horse advocates claim that many of the animals were wild mustangs that should have been protected by the federal Bureau of Land Management under the 1973 Wild Horse and Burro Act.
Laura Leigh, founder of Wild Horse Education, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Nevada, claiming that the BLM participated in the roundup instead of protecting the horses as the law requires.
The suit demands that the agency halt an auction scheduled for Saturday in Fallon, Nev., until it can determine which horses are unbranded and wild.
It also alleges that wild horses were removed through an agreement with tribal authorities, the U.S. Forest Service and the BLM. Many unbranded wild horses were removed, including those residing in an area of BLM-managed public land, it says.
Leigh told the Los Angeles Times that many of the horses collected may have been from BLM-managed land traveling the area in their normal seasonal migratory patterns.
She said the horses to be auctioned Saturday would probably be purchased by so-called kill buyers, who would ship them to slaughterhouses in Mexico. Such slaughterhouses in the U.S. were closed in 2007, but there have been recent court battles over whether to allow such slaughter to resume in the U.S.
“The reservation land can only support about 100 horses,” Leigh said. “We believe that the other horses headed for auction and probably death are mustangs that the BLM should have protected.”
In a post on her website, Leigh said: “I am literally ill that the horses that we have fought so long and hard to protect may now face certain death. I pray that the courts can suspend this sale and help sort this out before it is too late.”
The BLM has denied that any wild horses were taken off the range.
JoLynn Whorley, a spokeswoman for the agency’s Nevada office, acknowledged that the tribe collected horses last week, but said the BLM was not part of the effort.
“We weren’t involved in it,” she told The Times. “If these were our horses, we would step up and take responsibility for them. We’ve always done that. Our position is that these animals aren’t horses managed by the BLM and are not protected by law. They are animals that have been on tribal land for decades.”
Maxine Sart, tribal chairwoman for the Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone reservation, acknowledged that several hundred horses were rounded up from tribal territory.
She told The Times that a BLM observer was on hand during the process.
“There was a BLM obsserver,” she said. “She was one of their wild horse and burro specialists.”
Smart said the animals taken were not mustangs.
“They’re all domestic animals,” she said. “We took these horses from deep in the desert, far away from human domain.”
Gordon Cowan, a Reno-area lawyer who filed the lawsuit in federal court, said it remained the BLM’s duty to determine if any of the horses are wild.
“The ones with brands they can do whatever they want with,” he told The Times. “But the unbranded ones, or ones that are suddenly sporting new brands, could be wild horses. We want the BLM to clarify the origin of these horses.”
Leigh began her court battle to observe and protect wild horses in the BLM’s Owyhee Herd Management Area in 2010 and has filed numerous court actions alleging the agency’s mistreatment of wild horses under its program to remove some mustangs from the range and put them up for adoption.
Currently, the BLM has stockpiled 50,000 wild horses on Midwest farms -- more than the total that remain on the range.
[For the record, 4:30 p.m. PDT Aug. 15: An earlier version of this post mistakenly said the auction is on Sunday. It will be held on Saturday.]