WASHINGTON, DC — An attempt to criminally prosecute U.S. Forest Service employees for acts of cruelty to animals resulting in the death of two horses and a mule has been dropped, according to court records posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The dismissals followed an assertion of federal sovereign immunity in order to block prosecution in state court.
More than most federal agencies, the U.S. Forest Service uses horses and mules in its daily operations. Consequently, care and maintenance of equine livestock is an important duty on many national forests.
But there was a major breakdown of those responsibilities on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. In May of 2016, two horses (named Snip and Diesel) and a mule (named Little Bit) were moved out of the forest’s corral to a place aptly called Rattlesnake Pasture, which had not been occupied by horses for at least a decade because it had no reliable water source.
The animals were left unattended for four weeks without water during the hottest time of the year, with temperatures in the area ranging from 105 to 112°F. In late June, someone finally checked and found all three animals dead from dehydration.
An internal Forest Service investigation produced a final “report” that was only one page long yet was a model of obfuscation. It concluded that:
“Contributing to this unfortunate outcome was a compilation of past practices, unknown policies, poor communication, failure of leadership, local fire conditions and accretion of duties to an inexperienced employee.”
In short, the Forest Service held no one to account. Pima County took a different view and in April 2017 filed nine misdemeanor animal cruelty counts stemming from the animals’ deaths against two Forest Service employees, including the district ranger (who has since retired) responsible for livestock care.
“Spin, Diesel and Little Bit died of thirst but the real killer was inattention to duty compounded by official indifference,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting the forest has a Livestock Management Plan which requires equines be inspected at least once every two weeks. “The Forest Service routinely tickets members of the public but rarely tags one of its own.”
An attorney for one of the charged employees filed a motion to remove the case from state court to federal court on the basis that a federal employee cannot be subjected to state jurisdiction under the doctrine of federal supremacy. On June 7th, the Pima County attorney moved to dismiss the state complaint.
“Ironically, this immunity claim rests on federal employees fulfilling – not neglecting – their official duties,” added Ruch. “Sovereign immunity is rooted in the ancient English legal doctrine that ‘the king can do no wrong’ but there is plenty of wrong to go around in this case. The only reason local authorities acted was because federal officials shirked their responsibilities.”
PEER is asking concerned individuals to contact Trump’s Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue [email; twitter] to request that he reopen the case and take steps to prevent future tragedies of this kind.