By Scott Sonner, Associated Press
RENO, Nev.—Wild horse advocates trying to block shipment of hundreds of mustangs gathered from a national wildlife refuge on the Nevada-Oregon line told a federal judge Thursday the U.S. government is using a "cloak of secrecy" that prevents them from observing the handling of the animals in violation of the First Amendment.
U.S. District Judge Miranda Du denied the critics' request for an emergency injunction last week, saying they had failed to prove the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service broke any laws at the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge last month when they rounded up more than 400 horses that the advocates fear eventually will be resold for slaughter.
But she agreed to hear nearly five hours of oral arguments again Thursday on the question of whether the agency's restriction on public and media access to the animals is constitutional. She indicated she has some concerns about the "reasonableness" of the restrictions and expects to issue a ruling next week.
Laura Leigh, a photographer for Horseback Magazine and leader of the Nevada-based Wild Horse Education, said federal officials are using safety concerns as an excuse to keep advocates from documenting mistreatment of the mustangs.
"This is not a safety concern," Leigh testified in federal court in Reno. "Access has become an issue as controversy rises."
Leigh said the agency has kept her at least 500 feet away from the temporary holding pens—a distance of nearly two football fields that prevents her from even counting the horses, let alone tell if they are being abused.
"We try to be the eyes and ears to make sure they protect the horses and be accountable to the public, and they are not," she said. "These horses are being hidden from the public."
Terri Farley, author of the "Phantom Stallion" youth book series based on wild horses she's observed over the past two decades, said the restrictions are far more stringent than those she has experienced following herds and similar roundups on lands managed by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.
"Sheldon is behind the iron curtain," she testified. "This cloak of secrecy breeds suspicion."
Fish and Wildlife Service officials said a two-hour public viewing planned at the pens on Oct. 3 was canceled due to the government shutdown. They said they will attempt to reschedule when the agency's appropriations are restored, but said more than 100 of the horses already have been shipped to a private contractor and the rest may be gone by then.
Otherwise, the site has always been off limits to the public for safety and security reasons, said John Kasbohm, the refuge's project director. He said if too many people get too close to the horses, they can become agitated and harm themselves or others.
"There is a concern about the welfare of the horses. It also can endanger people working with the horses in the coral," he said.
Kasbohm said that since the legal battle began, some horse advocates have threatened on the Internet to release the horses from the pens "in the middle of the night."
Du said the agency has a right restrict access if the restrictions are narrowly tailored and serve a public interest.
"One of the things I'm struggling with is the qualified right of access," she said. "Why is 500 feet reasonable? Why not a closer point? ... I think the plaintiffs have raised an important issue."