Grass Roots Horse, a mustang advocacy group, had sought a restraining order against ongoing roundups. U.S. District Judge Larry Hicks on Monday denied its request for a temporary restraining order, but has not yet set a date to hear arguments in the case.
The group had amended their complaint Friday to include details of the latest roundup at the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge last week. It alleged that their observer was harassed by the helicopter contractor and federal employees, and that the observer discovered a grave site strewn with the bones of horses killed during previous roundups.
"The Fish and Wildlife Service has created an avenue for horses to be gathered without public notice and without any accountability," said Laura Leigh, a spokeswoman for Grass Roots Horse. "If they are doing nothing wrong, then why all the secrecy?"
Paul Steblein, the agency's project leader in Sheldon, confirmed 396 horses were removed from the refuge last week. He said the roundup was kept "low and quiet" for the safety of the workers and the horses because spectators at the site increase the chance of injury for humans and animals.
"We didn't send out any advance warning, but we've had gathers every year in September," Steblein said. "We didn't deny it. When asked, we admitted it."
Steblein said the roundup was part of a management plan approved in 2008, which called for a reduction of the horse population through 2011. He said the horses compete with native wildlife for forage and damage water sources.
Leigh, who sued the U.S. Department of the Interior and Sheldon officials in 2006, said she had dropped the lawsuit when she was assured that the horses in the wildlife refuge would be protected from purchase by "slaughter buyers."
She said the agency has ignored Freedom of Information Act inquiries asking about the disposition of horses previously captured on the refuge.