January 29, 2019
A U.S. District Court judge in Reno dismissed legal claims against a Nevada Indian tribal government over a disputed horse roundup in rural Washoe County.
Judge Miranda Du on Monday said even if claims the roundup swept up horses that shouldn’t have been included are true, the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe’s status as a sovereign government shields it from legal claims.
“The sovereign immunity doctrine is very broad, it doesn’t really matter what the facts are,” Du said.
Although Du dismissed claims against the tribe, she reminded the remaining defendants that a Jan. 17 order to refrain from sending horses to slaughter while the search for Lady, a privately owned horse thought to have been wrongly herded away, continues.
“The injunction I issued a couple weeks ago is still in place,” Du said. “Defendants … have to ensure this horse, Lady, is not going to be slaughtered.”
Lady’s owner, Colleen Westlake of Sparks, said that in the immediate aftermath of the roundup she begged tribal and state officials to allow her to search temporary holding pens for her horse, to no avail.
“It was really hard sitting there in the courtroom and knowing that a lot of this could have been avoided,” Westlake said. “I’m just so devastated, honestly.”
The case stems from an effort by the American Wild Horse Campaign, a nonprofit advocacy group, to recover at least 271 horses that were part of a tribally orchestrated roundup in Palomino Valley.
They argued the tribal government waived its sovereign immunity by organizing a roundup that went beyond the borders of the tribe’s reservation and included help from individual tribal members, state officials and private contractors who, they said, broke the law.
“They directed these actions to occur and therefore they shouldn't be able to claim sovereign immunity,” said Jessica Peterson, the attorney representing the horse advocates.
Peterson said she planned to submit more evidence supporting claims that the tribe worked in concert with others, including state officials, to circumvent state laws that require public notice in advance of feral livestock roundups. She also said the state’s brand inspection process was inadequate, which resulted in Lady and possibly other privately owned horses being shipped off improperly.
“The brand inspection certificates never should have been issued,” Peterson said. “The department should have immediately taken possession of these horses and they should have complied with the statutes … which requires them to do notice and to publish the sale of the horses.”
Notices, Peterson said, would have given people the chance to secure their horses in advance of the roundup. They also would have given horse advocates the opportunity to buy the rounded-up horses and adopt them out to owners who would care for them.
Du, however, dismissed the claims against the tribe with prejudice, meaning they can’t be revived.
“I'm looking at the complaint that was filed. That's all I have,” Du said. “You cannot try to supplement the allegations in the complaint at the hearing.”
Officials from the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, which owns land on the other side of the Pah Rah Range from Palomino Valley, said the roundup was part of a broader plan to restore the range on the tribe’s reservation which has been devastated by fire in recent years.
The tribe owns horses that roam freely on and off the reservation that officials say the range can no longer sustainably support.
Alan Mandell, vice chairman of the tribe, said tribal officials did their best to provide notice of the roundup in advance and relied on state brand inspectors to prevent horses from being wrongly shipped off.
“We are using all the available notification processes available to anyone,” Mandell said. “We can’t do much more than allow them to come out and inspect (the horses), if there are problems, they pull them, that is all we can do.”
While Monday’s ruling dismissed claims against the tribe, it didn’t resolve claims against Cattoor Livestock Roundup Co., a private contractor that worked on the roundup, or two Nevada Department of Agriculture officials, animal division administrator Doug Farris and state brand inspector Chris Miller, who were among the defendants.
Farris and Miller declined to comment when asked if they believed the brand inspection process was flawed.
The fate of Lady also remains unknown. She could be on a lot in New Mexico where the horses from the roundup are in holding.
Deputy attorney general Peter Keegan told Du state officials contacted officials in New Mexico who said they couldn’t identify Lady using a photo Westlake provided.
Du suggested officials work with the horse advocates to search more thoroughly.
“I think the defendants take the risk if this horse, Lady, is in the horses that have been shipped and they don't comply with the order to ensure she's not shipped to be slaughtered,” Du said. “Once you violate that order it is irreversible.”
It’s also possible Lady didn’t survive the roundup or was never corralled and is still roaming the area. Although Westlake said if Lady were alive and free to roam, she would have returned home.
“I’m not sure what is going to happen next, to be honest with you,” she said.