Ninth Circuit Hearing on Access to Wild Horses

Laura Leigh at Broken Arrow when there was access to the facility in 2010. (photo by Elyse Gardner)

Laura Leigh at Broken Arrow when there was access to the facility in 2010. (photo by Elyse Gardner)

(San Francisco) Today the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals heard the case on access to the hands on management practices of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The case has been up and down the courts winning a landmark decision in 2012 that sent the case back to the lower court with specific instructions. Earlier this year the district court stated that even though historic access was allowed the government’s restrictions were “narrowly tailored” to suit safety concerns and ruled in BLM’s favor. The same day as the ruling was made the notice of Appeal was filed by attorney Gordon Cowan representing Laura Leigh, founder of Wild Horse Education and journalist for Horseback Magazine.

“This case is simple,” says Leigh “For decades the press and public had access to document roundups and facilities. For years people were afraid to release images because they were afraid they would lose access. Images came out during Calico and went viral on the internet. The BLM restricted access, gave discriminatory access and locked the doors to Broken Arrow. It’s wrong. The public has a right to know and formulate their own opinion.”

Observation location at Silver King in 2010 over 1.5 miles from the trap.

Observation location at Silver King in 2010 over 1.5 miles from the trap.

The written record on this case is voluminous. Within the pages of the case historic access is shown. Discriminatory access is shown. The restrictions imposed under “safety” concerns are repeatedly broken for members of the public that agree with BLM.

The BLM argues that the case will be moot at the end of the year as the Record of Decision (ROD) governing the roundup that began this case in 2010 expires. In testimony however the BLM wild horse and burro specialist for that area stated that a new ROD would need to be completed and horses removed likely in 2014. In 2012 the Ninth Circuit ruled the case was not moot at the expiration of the roundup.

“It was obvious at todays hearing that the Judge’s were interested in this case and recognized it’s importance,” said Elyse Gardner, wild horse advocate and observer at todays hearing, “They asked pointed questions on both sides and even quoted one of Laura Leigh’s videos asking, ‘Is it bad enough for you?’ As an observer to wild horse roundups that has had my access stripped year after year I hope this battle finally comes to an end. I believe observers serve to inform the public and at the same time may create a more diligent work performance from BLM.”

“We need this ruling to stand as a precedent to access to our wild horses and burros throughout the West,” stated Leigh “We have complied with all protocol and requests in this process and after three and a half years await the ruling of the Ninth Circuit court. I pray that soon we will have access to tell the story of today’s American wild horse, the real story. The only way to tell that story is to witness it. If you can not witness then the story becomes about the struggle to witness, not about the wild horse itself.”

Will BLM's "iron curtain" between what really happens to America's horses lift soon? (photo Leigh)

Will BLM’s “iron curtain” between what really happens to America’s horses lift soon? (photo Leigh)

This case was joined by fifteen press organizations that wrote in Amicus “The public has a right to see what happens during wild horse roundups on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands. Because of their remote location, the only effective way for the public to monitor BLM’s activities is through visual recordings by media representatives such as plaintiff- appellant Laura Leigh. Although the court below correctly recognized that there is a public and press right of access to such activities, it gave excessive weight to the Government’s justifications for limiting access to the horse gathers. In particular, it afforded too much discretion to the Government to decide whether observing the gathers was safe, without recognizing that journalists routinely – and critically – face far more dangerous situations on a regular basis without official interference or protection. In its holding, the court below denied meaningful public and press access to the horse roundups, while sustaining unconstitutional restrictions on such access. The lower court’s decision should be reversed.”

The ruling from the Ninth Circuit is eagerly awaited.


Wild Horse Education currently carries four active cases in federal court for wild horses and burros.