RENO, Nev. (AP) — A federal judge agreed to hear last-minute arguments Friday from wild horse advocates seeking to block the sale of hundreds of wild mustangs, likely for slaughterhouses if a weekend auction goes forward, claiming the animals are federally protected mustangs that were rounded up illegally by a Nevada tribe.
Federal land managers say the mustangs belong to the Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone Tribe near the Oregon border and are not protected under the Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971.
A coalition of Western horse advocates said in multiple filings Thursday and Friday in U.S. District Court in Reno that many of the unbranded horses among the more than 400 gathered by the tribe originated on neighboring U.S. lands.
U.S. District Judge Miranda Du set a hearing by teleconference for 1 p.m. Friday to decide whether to grant a temporary restraining order suspending the auction, which is scheduled for Saturday in Fallon.
Nevada state agriculture officials have acknowledged some of the horses likely will be purchased for slaughterhouses in foreign countries if higher bidders don't step up at the Fallon Livestock Exchange about 60 miles east of Reno.
A lawyer for Laura Leigh, leader of Reno-based Wild Horse Education, said in an emergency motion filed Thursday that the Bureau of Land Management should be required to do DNA testing on the horses to prove their ownership. But BLM officials said they have no intention to interfere with the sale.
Dan Bogden, U.S. attorney for Nevada representing the federal agencies, said in a response filed early Friday that 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.
On Friday, Leigh and others filed a second lawsuit against the Forest Service, its parent Agriculture Department and the Fallon Livestock Exchange, accusing government land managers of violating federal law by authorizing the tribe's roundup without taking steps to ensure wild horses from federal land weren't included in the removal.
The coalition, which includes 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."
A third lawsuit Friday by Citizens Against Equine Slaughter of Ashland, Ore., and Protect Mustangs of Berkley, Calif., also contends that the federal agencies violated federal law by failing to conduct the necessary environmental analysis of the roundup's potential impact to the range.
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."