Criminal charges weighed against federal officials in deaths of 83 wild horses after roundup

RENO, Nev. (AP) — A Nevada district attorney is considering whether to file criminal charges against federal land managers who are accused by animal rights activists of mistreating wild horses in a roundup.

Churchill County Sheriff Richard Ingram said his department began an investigation May 20 after an activist filed a complaint alleging that mustangs were abused and neglected at a holding facility.

U.S. Bureau of Land Management officials confirmed that 83 of some 1,900 horses brought there in a government roundup have died.

Activists unsuccessfully sued to halt the roundup of the animals from the range north of Reno, branding it as unnecessary and inhumane. The BLM maintains the Calico Mountains Complex roundup was necessary because of overpopulation of the herd, which is harming native wildlife and the range and threatening the mustangs with starvation.

Ingram said his investigation report, submitted late Thursday, makes no recommendations and cites a state law that makes "failure to provide proper sustenance" to animals illegal.

"We determined there was water and food provided and a veterinarian at the scene," the sheriff said. "Now, the DA will make a determination as to whether or not the care being provided is sufficient under the law."

Chief Deputy District Attorney Tom Stockard said his office has not had a chance to review the report.

"Anytime there's serious allegations made we want to go through it thoroughly," Stockard said Friday. "We're going to give it all consideration and make a determination as to the appropriate action."

Under the law, he said, any charges would have to be filed against an individual such as BLM officials, the contractor or facility employees.

A first offense is a misdemeanor that carries a penalty of two days to six months in jail, 48 hours to 120 hours of community service and a $200 to $1,000 fine.

Aleta T. Wagner of Denver, whose complaint spurred the investigation, accused the BLM of providing inadequate medical care for the mustangs at the holding facility near Fallon, about 60 miles east of Reno.

Wagner said she was especially upset over what she called the lack of care provided to a 3-day-old foal that was euthanized May 16. Three other activists later filed similar complaints.

"This foal suffered for several days without notice by the BLM until the public pointed it out to them," Wagner told the Lahontan Valley News & Fallon Eagle Standard newspaper.

Activist Elise Gardner of Novato, Calif., who has closely monitored the facility, said only one veterinarian is available to care for horses there and at a separate corral near Reno.

"One vet can't possibly give sufficient care to all these animals," Gardner said. "The BLM expects a death rate of 1 percent and it's over 5 percent with this roundup. This is horrific."

BLM officials have said there's roughly a 1 percent death rate at roundup sites but no statistics are available for deaths at holding facilities.

BLM spokeswoman JoLynn Worley said the agency has provided good care to the horses. She attributed the deaths mostly to the poor condition of mares that were sent to Fallon, where the animals are being prepared for adoption or transfer to pastures in the Midwest.

"Most of the animals out there have gained weight," Worley said.

Gardner welcomed the investigation.

"Many horses out there are doing well, but there are many who aren't," she said.