I-Team: More Horses Die in Gather, Public Not Allowed to Observe

ELKO COUNTY, Nev. -- A deadly government roundup of Nevada's wild horses during the hottest month of the year has led to new accusations in federal court.

Wild horse advocates have accused the Bureau of Land Management of contempt, because the agency went to extraordinary lengths to keep the public from being able to observe a horse roundup over the past few days in which 21 mustangs died.

We would like to report that members of the press and public were able to get in and see the roundup, but that did not happen because of gamesmanship and subterfuge on the part of the BLM. The agency clearly does not want outside eyes to watch what it is doing.

Read the contempt motion filed by advocates

On Friday, a federal judge ruled that the Tuscarora Roundup could proceed because BLM said many horses would die without it, but he also ordered that BLM could no longer bar the public from watching the operation. Despite the judge's order, BLM found a way to do exactly that.

"To run pregnant mares and newborn foals in this heat and in that desert -- it's rough terrain -- it's wrong. It spells disaster. We knew this was going to happen, which is why we filed the suit in the first place," said author and horse advocate Laura Leigh.

Mustang advocates Laura Leigh and Elyse Gardner warned a federal judge that a roundup in the parched expanses of Elko County during the blazing heat of July was a bad idea, not only because of the stress on the horses from being chased for miles by a helicopter, but because the peak of foaling season had just passed, meaning any roundup would likely kill mares and newborns.

Read the declaration by Laura Leigh

In federal court, BLM argued this roundup, like others before it, would not harm the horses. But BLM was wrong.

Within hours after the roundup began, horses that had been chased then captured keeled over dead. BLM stopped the roundup. Laura Leigh went back to federal court.

"Imagine running 10 miles in this heat with a newborn baby? No horse owner would do that, and if they did they could be cited for inhumane treatment," she said.

After conducting their own aerial surveys of the targeted ranges, horse advocates became convinced BLM was lying about a lot of things. But BLM returned to court with a new strategy.

The standard roundup that had been in the works for more than a year was now described as an emergency rescue. BLM warned that 75-percent of the horses in the Owyhee Range would be dead in three days unless the "rescue was allowed."

BLM had already ordered that the public lands around the gather would be closed off to the public, even the air space. The judge took BLM's word for it and allowed the roundup to proceed. But he added it would be unconstitutional to bar the public altogether. He ordered BLM to work something out so the public could observe. That was on Friday.

Read a letter from BLM to Laura Leigh

Leigh and Gardner drove all night to arrive by Saturday morning when the roundup resumed. BLM was not exactly helpful.

"We were informed that arrest was a possibility given the vague parameters," said Leigh.

BLM lifted the restrictions on access to public land, but it moved the horse trap and gather site onto a private ranch in the middle of the public land. To no ones surprise, the ranch owner didn't want any intruders.

They wouldn't tell Leigh and Gardner where the ranch was, but if they trespassed, they would be arrested.

"We're driving on this country road with the sheriff's vehicle behind us. He said he was sent there to keep us off private property," said Gardner.

It isn't the first time BLM has used this tactic. The disastrous Calico Roundup last winter, in which more than 100 wild horses died in the brutal cold, was also headquartered at the only private land in a half million acre public range. BLM controlled who could enter and when. The principal holding facility where Nevada horses are taken after capture is also on private land and is now off limits.

The roundup in Elko County is one of three BLM has planned for the area. Already more than 600 horses have been captured. At least 21 have died, though, for now, we all must take BLM's word for it.

Now that Leigh has gone back to federal court to ask that BLM be held in contempt for again barring the public from the roundup site, BLM has decided to hold two media days on the 23rd and 24th, a full two weeks after the roundup began and days after the Owyhee Gather will be completely finished. They're spoiling us.

Instead of waiting for BLM, Chief Investigative Reporter George Knapp and Chief Photojournalist Matt Adams flew up Monday took their own aerial survey of the ranges which will be targeted next. Tomorrow at 11, is BLM telling the truth about conditions out there?


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