Laura Leigh, a publisher and artist, is suing the Dept. of Interior and Bureau of Land Management (BLM).Â Â
Her complaint, filed this past week in federal court in Nevada, challenges not only the removal of wild horses from the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge in northern Nevada, but the way they are shipped thousands of miles away, many times to slaughter. Â
Leigh has been researching the wild horses in the Refuge for a series of children’s books called â€˜The Rescue Friends.’"Â Â Leigh says that her current work is "dedicated to educating children about horses, feral horses, mustangs and particularly of horse rescue stories". Her new works are dedicated to "teaching young children good practices relative to the management of wild horses, particularly Sheldon Horses." She says that the "unique aspect of the …publications and illustrations directed to children and to the public relative to wild horses is [that my] stories and illustrations emanate from true subjects and are far from fiction."
Leigh says she has "spent countless time and effort the past two years compiling significant research and history of the feral horses residing within Sheldon in preparation" for illustrating and publishing of these children’s books. Â She has been viewing and recording the wild horses in their natural habitat in Sheldon.
"The children’s tale however, is about to take a turn toward an unforgettable tale of a darker side should the Defendants be allowed to complete their intended long-haul shipment of horses from Sheldon to places far from the State of Nevada."
According to the Complaint filed by Leigh’s attorney, Gordon Cowan, the horses are being rounded up and "then given to private entities which in turn would ship the Sheldon Horses in mass, long-distance, via large truck vans, to as far away as Tennessee where the Defendants would lose track of their ultimate destination". She says the horses are not identified in any way before they are shipped off. She believes the wild horses will end up at slaughter houses. This despite the BLM’s policy and mandate that the horses are treated humanely and adopted out to good homes that have been screened.
Leigh’s proof is the brutal treatment of wild horses during the 2006 gather in Sheldon.
According to the Complaint, 2 of the 3 contractors rounding up the horses right now are virtually kill buyers known for sending them to slaughter.
The BLM has rejected Leigh’s offer to adopt Sheldon horses. Â Leigh says there are a number of local rescues and others that would adopt the horses, but BLM refuses to work with them.
Instead, after they are rounded up, typically with the use of a helicopter, the wild horses "endure multiple days of transportation while crammed together in an over-populated van type trailer, traveling 30 to 40 hours" to Tennessee.
A Legal Loophole
Wild horses on "public lands" are protected under the Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, 16 U.S.C. Â§1331 et seq. That means they should be "protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death" and entitled to roam free on public lands where they were living at the time the Act was passed in 1971. Though "excess" wild horses are to be removed, in general, "[m]anagement activities affecting wild horses and burros shall be undertaken with the goal of maintaining free-roaming behavior." 16 U.S.C. Â§1333, 43 CFR 4700.0-6 "Management shall be at the minimum level necessary to attain the objectives identified in approved land use plans and herd management area plans." 43 CFR 4710.4
The BLM is required to inventory and monitor the horses. 43 CFR 4710.2 It is illegal to maliciously or negligently injure or harass wild horses or burros protected by the Act, treat them inhumanely or use them for commercial gain. 43 CFR Â§4770.1
Wild horses deemed excess under the Act and removed that are offered for adoption must be marked "with a permanent freeze mark of alpha numeric symbols on the left side of [the] neck" and a record made of a health inspection and immunizations. 43 CFR Â§ 4750.2-1 There are extensive regulations governing adoptions.Â Â
But "public lands" are defined under that statute to include only lands managed by BLM or the U.S. Forest Service. 16 U.S.C Â§1332(e). Â The Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge is managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, an agency, like BLM, within the Dept. of Interior. Â
A loophole that makes no sense. Â
"Excess" Wild HorsesÂ
Even those wild horses and burros rounded up under the Act, though, are treated brutally.Â The Act allows slaughter of some "excess" horses and wild burros.Â Excess wild horses is a legal term that means horses BLM has decided to remove from an area "to preserve and maintain a thriving natural ecological balance and multiple-use relationship in that area" or for some other legal reason. See 16 USC Â§1332(f).
Under a 2004 amendment to the Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act,Â "excess" horses "shall be sold…if the excess animal is more than 10 years of age; or … has been offered unsuccessfully for adoption at least 3 times." 16 U.S.C. Â§1333. Any horse sold under this provision is no longer subject to the protections of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act. 16 U.S.C.Â§1333. Since this amendment became effective, BLM has sold thousands of wild horses for slaughter.
The horses are panicked, terrified, traumatized and many times injured as they are run down by the helicopters. Families will be separated and destroyed forever. The BLM does not bother to keep horses together in their families.
Nevada’s Property Rights
Leigh claims that regardless, the wild horses belong to the State of Nevada and the BLM has no authority to remove them particularly in this way and send them to Tennessee and parts unknown. Â She says BLM or FWS can only remove animals without ownership and these horses belong to Nevada. NRS 569.010(1); 50 CFR 30.11(a)
Leigh says the defendants have acted arbitrarily and capriciously and have unlawfully converted Nevada’s property, the wild horses. She asks the Court "to recognize the historic herd use area for wild horses within the Refuge", enjoin the current plan for removing the horses and instead fashion a new plan for management of the wild horses.
Leigh asks the Court to require an accounting from the defendants as to what has happened to the wild horses removed this year.
She asks the Court to require implementation of a system for identifying and tracking the horses and order that they be placed in good homes in Nevada and not shipped thousands of miles away.