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Doubts cast on 'stray' horse roundup

July 9, 2010

When is a horse a stray domestic animal and when is it feral? The question has been posed by the Equine Welfare Alliance over plans to gather 175 horses in Pilot Valley, Nevada.

The Elko District office of the Bureau of Land Management has described the horses as "abandoned, domestic, estray" horses.

On June 23, it announced plans to muster the horses later that week, in an operation expected to take 3-4 days.

The alliance said that, under Nevada law, an estray is a horse that is found running loose on public lands but shows signs of domestication and the owner is unknown.

A horse is considered "feral" under Nevada law if the animal was domesticated or is the offspring of domesticated horses and has become wild with no physical signs of domestication.

The state of Nevada owns estray and feral horses, whereas wild horses and free-roaming mustangs are protected by the bureau under the 1971 Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act.

Nevada authorities plan to sell the horses rounded up by the bureau at auction this Saturday.

Alliance vice-president Valerie James-Patton says the horses will be available to all buyers and are therefore at risk of ending up at slaughterhouses in Mexico or Canada.

"Serious questions are being raised as to whether these horses are, in fact, estray or feral," she said.

"After investigating the history and location of the Pilot Valley area, wild horse advocates found Pilot Valley sits at the edge of a known wild horse territory called the Toano Wild Horse Herd Area.

"The bureau wanted to make this area 'horse free' in 1993, but, according to the bureau's programme statistics, approximately 168 wild horses were reported as still residing in the Toano range as of last year."

The proximity and near identical number of horses has led wild-horse advocates to speculate that the horses the bureau rounded up as estray might actually be wild horses from the Toano range and therefore entitled to roam free under federal protection.

"How does BLM know these horses are estray or feral and not wild horses?" James-Patton asked.

The alliance said its suspicions were further fuelled by the unusual suddenness of the roundup, which began just 48 hours after notice of the removal was posted.

"These horses will go from free-roaming to sold in 15 days or less, with tight security at the facilities where they are now being held," James-Patton said.

"Even the bureau's own news release stated those horses had been there a long time, long enough to grow in size," Patton added.

"So now the question becomes, how long is a long time? Since 1993 when the bureau filed papers to zero out the Toano Herd Area?"

Alliance spokeswoman Vicki Tobin said: "Did the bureau openly remove federally protected wild horses from the range to sell them for slaughter because they have no fear of being held accountable?

"It would be illegal for the bureau to round up wild horses, declaring them estray and turn them over to the state. The bureau is prohibited from sending wild horses to slaughter, whether directly or indirectly."

While questions have surfaced over the true status of the Pilot Valley horses, the Animal Law Coalition's Laura Allen points out: "Before selling estray horses, the state is supposed to use reasonable diligence to try to find the owner including placing a notice about the estray with a full description in the local paper.

"The bureau's news release states these are domestic estray horses abandoned by local residents. So why isn't an effort being made to find the local owners and hold them responsible to care for these horses instead of rushing these horses off for instant sale?

"Another concern is, there are very specific definitions as to how to determine estray and feral livestock from federally protected wild horses and, so far, the only thing we've seen is a take-our-word-for-it position from officials," she said.

Alliance president John Holland said: "When things look this suspicious, questions are bound to arise."

The alliance said it contacted the bureau on July 1 to ask how it determined the horses were estray. It was still awaiting a response.

The alliance called for a federal investigation to find out how the bureau determined the horses were not federally protected wild horses from the Toano range.

The alliance is a dues-free, umbrella organisation with over 100 member organisations. It focuses on the welfare of all equines and the preservation of wild equids.



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