February 8, 2019
Advocates for the return of “Lady,” a pet horse thought to have been wrongly swept up in a Palomino Valley roundup, are dropping their federal case.
The American Wild Horse Campaign is expected filed a stipulation and order for dismissal for what remains of a lawsuit they filed last month in U.S. District Court in Reno against the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, the state of Nevada and two Nevada Department of Agriculture officials and private contractor who helped with the roundup.
Last week, Judge Miranda Du dismissed claims against the Pyramid Lake Paiute, citing the tribe’s sovereign immunity as an independent government, the state and the contractor. Du allowed claims against the two agriculture officials, Doug Farris and Chris Miller, stand pending an evidentiary hearing.
However, during their efforts to locate Lady and as many as 270 other horses thought to have been rounded up, horse advocates found brand inspections from New Mexico, where the horses had been shipped from Nevada, suggesting they had already been transported to Mexico for possible slaughter.
“In light of the fact that the horses are gone with no chance of recovery … there is now no remedy presently available to us in this federal court case,” said Suzanne Roy, director of the advocate group.
Nevada Department of Agriculture officials did not respond to a request for comment.
The newly filed stipulation to dismiss the remaining claims still needs approval from Du to go into effect.
The roundup, organized by the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, began Jan. 4 and lasted several days.
Tribal officials called for it as part of an effort to reduce grazing pressure on their reservation land northeast of Reno. Wildfires have burned much of the tribe’s land in recent years and the tribe’s land management plan, developed with federal officials, is an effort to preserve what remains and restore burned areas.
“We are just following through with this management plan to protect the natural resources,” Vice Chairman Alan Mandell said last month.
The roundup was meant to include hundreds of tribally owned horses that roam freely on and around the reservation. Although the horses behave and live similarly to wild horses, their status as tribally owned means they’re not afforded protections under the federal Wild Horse and Burro Act and other federal regulations, including those meant to restrict wild horses from being sent to slaughter.
At the time of the roundup, many of the horses the tribe targeted were away from the reservation in the Palomino Valley, a rural area separated from the tribe’s land by the Pah Rah Range.
Using horses, motorcycle and a helicopter, workers moved through the valley rounding up animals, including some which were privately owned and on private property, according to testimony. Several property owners complained that roundup workers trespassed and startled or herded off horses and burros that were privately owned or free-roaming but distinct from the tribally owned horses that frequent the reservation.
The rounded-up horses included Lady, a small mare belonging to Colleen Westlake of Sparks. Westlake adopted the horse through the Nevada Department of Agriculture and the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe in July because she wanted to take care of her. Previously, she had been living on the range with another horse Westlake adopted because she wanted to hire a veterinarian to care for a visible leg injury.
The other horse died, but Lady survived and was living on the property of a friend of Westlake’s.
“I just want my horse back,” Westlake wrote in a declaration filed with the complaint. “I love my horse, she means everything to me. No amount of money could replace Lady, and I would be devastated if she were slaughtered.”
Westlake said she found out Lady was gone when her friend told her the horse had been swept up during the roundup.
She spent a frantic few days searching the area and reaching out to tribal and state officials for help.
Before rounded up horses can be shipped away, Nevada Department of Agriculture officials are required to issue brand inspections, which is a method of verifying ownership rights.
Westlake and the horse advocates suspected the brand inspections were inadequate and the inspectors may have overlooked Lady and wrongly shipped her off to a buyer in New Mexico.
They successfully convinced Du to issue an order to prevent the slaughter of Lady, but the horse never materialized despite efforts to find her.
Sue Cattoor, of Cattoor Livestock Roundup, the private contractor that helped with the roundup said she doesn’t think Lady was among the horses that were corralled and shipped to New Mexico.
“We didn’t catch all the horses, there are a lot of horses we didn’t capture,” Cattoor said in an earlier interview. “The brand inspector inspected every single solitary captured horse and determined we didn’t capture Lady.”
Cattoor said it’s possible Lady is still on the range with other free-roaming horses.
Westlake hasn’t ruled out the possibility, but she also suspects that if Lady had survived the roundup and avoided capture she would have returned.
She's more convinced Lady was overlooked in the brand inspection process and wrongly shipped away.
Westlake said Lady was a petite brown mare who wouldn't stand out from a group at first glance.
Lady's distinctive features were subtle, Westlake said. For example, she said Lady's nose and lips were slightly longer than is typical, with a subtle droop at the end.
"If you didn’t love this horse and know this horse that would be very easy to just miss," Westlake said.
In a statement announcing plans to drop the lawsuit, Roy said the horse advocates will, “explore other legal and legislative avenues to ensure this situation doesn’t happen again.”