An Important Anniversary, Paving the way

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The moment of capture, Eagle/Caliente 2016

“In the moment of capture the horse tells you a story. A story of the range by his body condition and the story of his capture through behavior and physical condition. The moment of capture. An extraordinarily controversial moment.”

An important anniversary.

February 14, 2012 the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled, in a published opinion in  Leigh v Salazar (No. 11-16088,D.C. No. 3:10-cv-00597- LRH-VPC), in favor of Plaintiff. The case was filed in 2010, originally citing the Silver King roundup and others where similar conduct was likely to occur. The case was filed to gain reasonable access to assess wild horse roundups and wild horses in holding after capture. The case was a landmark victory for freedom of the press issues and changed the conversation of law for wild horses and burros forever.

Ironically as the world was learning of the victory Leigh was at the Stone Cabin roundup and had no access to view the trap that day. Issues of access were being met with opposition apparently from Bureau of Land Management roundup contractors.

In litigation there is a term, “mootness.” It means that an issue had already taken place and that the courts had no remedy, essentially ending a cause of action. For years and years litigation for wild horse issues ran against a wall of mootness. Roundups ended and legal actions would be dropped because there was no longer a way to address the issue.

The Ninth Circuit over ruled the “mootness doctrine” in this case. Even though the original roundup the case was filed against had ended, wild horses would eventually be removed from the area again and the conduct was occurring elsewhere. The case went forward.

Not only was the “right to know” validated in a fashion that Leigh described as “hearing the Liberty Bell ring,” but the wall of “mootness” fell. Other cases against inhumane treatment held by Leigh against the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in the federal court system moved forward. Leigh was then awarded the first Preliminary Injunction in history against inappropriate treatment (petitioned based on this case).

This case lasted another two years in the federal courts. Fifteen news organizations joined when the case went back up to the Ninth Circuit in 2013. In December of 2013 the Ninth Circuit ordered Leigh and BLM into Mediation. In September of 2014 Leigh entered into an agreement with BLM where issues of access would be addressed in an ongoing discussion and the “off limits” facility in Fallon Nevada, Broken Arrow, would reopen doors to public tours and if used to take in horses off the range.

“For almost a year we talked about multiple issues. Conversations revolved around access but also included multiple issues facing the wild horse and burro program. We continued the discussions after the agreement and continue talking to this day. We sit at a time where changes must happen and we really need to stop the current crisis management practices and get proactive. Yes, there are days I get very frustrated with the compartmentalized historic mindset. But I remain optimistic that we can get beyond it and into discussions that build and utilize practical tools, time is running out.

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Eagle/Caliente 2016

Note from the road, Leigh:

“Sitting at the Eagle/Caliente roundup these last few days I do see real progress. Access to the moment of capture was facilitated. Conversations occurred about capture methods. Care and control was evident in practice. But as always I am in ’roundup brain’ and a bit sleep deprived.

“Not many people understand the moment of capture. It is pivotal in the life of a wild horse. It is the moment the horse leaves the range management structure and enters into the system of holding. These aspects of the Wild Horse and Burro Program are not only distinct in what they manage but the structure of management is controlled primarily by the National office after capture, they are almost like two distinct programs. 

The moment of capture also tells the entire story of how the horse was captured. The attitude of the horse, body condition, respiration all tell the story of the stress the animal was subjected to. Being able to evaluate the horse in that moment is vital to tell the story of the horse itself.

I have fought for years to have reasonable and unobstructed access to that moment. I had it at this roundup. Not only did I have access, but the capture methods were not overtly stressful. I prefer that we work on managing horses on the range, but when capture is necessary, transparency and humane care are first and foremost. 

Processing the images from this roundup I actually sat here and cried. The fight took so long. I have witnessed more days of wild horse captures than any member of the public or government over the last 6 years. I have been subjected to absurd rules, disregard, disrespect and inane practices. I have seen horses subjected to obstinate adherence to old practices and I have seen horrific things that could have been avoided. At this roundup? I experienced none of it. I was treated like a human being by people being human beings… and real care taken during capture. Just typing these words brings tears. 

Tomorrow there will be issues, it is just the nature of this journey. How we handle obstacles in the future is yet to be seen. But tonight? I am holding onto hope.”


“Hope” was the name of a colt run during the 2009/2010 Calico roundup that Leigh documented. The eight month old colt was pushed hard over frozen volcanic rock and was later documented in holding as his feet literally began to fall off. That experience is what began this work and led to the forming of Wild Horse Education.

Access example in 2010

Video sent to Leigh before the first hearing in a case (before this one) that summed up the “fight” in a humorous fashion (adult language)


Of note the years of fighting for access to wild horses was done with no fanfare from Legislators or statement of support from local politicians. The same politicians that have supported those recently that took (and continue to take) the road of unlawful actions to “get what they want.” These same individuals vehemently oppose protections for wild horses and burros (even promoting their slaughter). We have never broken a rule or law or threw a single threat of physical action.

The work continues to bring these conversations forward to create fair and equitable practices on the range. Wild horses and burros occupy a tiny fraction of our public land and are marginalized as forage is allocated for private livestock production and habitat is encroached on by extractive industry. We must create sane plans for preservation of habitat and conservation of our wild herds.

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