Wild Horse Education

FOIA SNAFU: Major roadblock to informed public participation (part one)

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Wild horses of the Desatoya complex during the roundup (BLM fiscal 2020 schedule)

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is essentially a last resort used by many journalists, organizations and citizens to locate critical information. After research and direct questioning provide no response, a FOIA can give you the answers you seek. Definition from FOIA.gov: Since 1967, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has provided the public the right to request access to records from any federal agency. It is often described as the law that keeps citizens in the know about their government

Informed participation in process is vital not only as we engage issues involving humane handling (through direct observation and statistics), but every single avenue of management. Only through transparentactions and full disclosure can the public understand what is being done with taxpayer money, and also how to use their voice as they exercise their right as the largest stakeholder of public lands,

In theory you can submit a request for documents related to a subject and within a reasonable time frame have access to relevant information related to a public issue. It also “requires agencies to proactively post online certain categories of information, including frequently requested records.”

You can get the official answers to some overview questions HERE on the FOIA.gov site. 

We are going to take the FOIA conversation into the world of “wild horses.”

One example of “frequently FOIA’d records in the wild horse world” are facility reports after a roundup. Starting in 2011 BLM began publishing facility reports that showed the date and number of wild horses received at each facility, and any injuries or deaths, for a period of at least 30 days after a roundup on their operations “update” pages. By 2013 this practice had become extremely erratic. By 2015 BLM stopped publishing those statistics publicly in any fashion. In fall of 2016 BLM removed all of the previously published statistics from their online portal.

(Video below featuring copy and pasted facility statistics after the Eagle roundup of 2011. BLM no longer publishes these facility statistics online during or after roundups. BLM has removed all the old reports from the internet portal. If you want this type of information today you need to file a FOIA and fight for a fee exemption. BLM has begun refusing, in part or entire, fee waivers they used to simply approve and for information that was once disclosed publicly without the need to even file a FOIA. Each FOIA now begins with a fee waiver fight simply to gain what should be public information freely available online.)

Today, you can not get an answer to any question on receipt of wild horses, dates shipped out of facility or injuries and deaths without filing a FOIA.

Many FOIAs today involve simple records like the one above (facility death stats). Basic program data, facility inventory, death rates, historic population counts and methods, etc all require a FOIA today. The webpages on BLM.gov associated with the wild horse program have become an apparent exercise in “how many pages can be made that have no meaningful information?” or “hunt and peck” and never find a single comparative data point.

If you search through and find the “data” page you can not even find the number of wild horses and burros captured in a single fiscal year before 2012.

If you click through to what BLM calls the “science and research” page you find a list of projects and not one linked to any underlying documentation or even a simple outline of the project with the “select partners” of BLM. (HERE)

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The BLM wild horse and burro program has always had a transparency problem. Today the areas where there once was some small progress, have now slid backwards rapidly.

The system to receive and review requests has also changed. You used to file a written request. BLM will no longer fulfill written requests and requires you to use this online form HERE.

If after searching the web, and/or asking BLM directly for information, if you do not get answers to your questions, you need to FOIA.

The inability to find information on the web (even simple stats) has led to a (logical) rise in FOIA requests.

BLM is now using that rise in requests to delay responses. In some cases the delays now come with a statement that they will answer requests for information as they find it; no timeline. WHE has three outstanding FOIA requests over 8 months old, one request over 5 years old.


Research involves many avenues. Click image to read a story uncovered by WHE about former Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke. Zinke resigned under the cloud of more than a dozen active ethics investigations. (click image to read archived article)

BLM is even withholding information critical to informed participation in ongoing proposed rule changes and agency actions.

As an example:

The Council on Environmental Quality has proposed a sweeping rollback of NEPA that would, in some cases, reduce or eliminate the act’s core principle of listening to the voices of affected people and communities when large projects might alter their landscapes and lives. FOIA documents that would shed light on the motive behind the proposed changes from the Trump administration, and who was behind them, wee requested by the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC).  However the government said response documents would not be made available until November of 2020. (the deadline to comment on proposed rules changes was March 10 deadline).

SELC filed litigation. The time it is taking for the government to hand over the documents “defies comprehension and certainly cannot be categorized as prompt,” stated Judge Conrad. On March 9 the judge stated that a lengthy delay in producing public documents to SELC was “incomprehensible” and “somewhat outrageous,” but also told attorneys he did not have the authority to order the government to extend the public comment period over changes proposed to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). He did suggest that SELC take the matter to a higher court (meaning, to appeal his ruling).

Under the current system in order to submit fully informed comment on massive changes to policy that governs the main interface for public participation, concerning the decision process on public lands, legal action was required? Litigation is extremely time consuming and expensive.

Many circumstances exist where in order to engage the situation appropriately, we need additional information. Often BLM will not answer simple questions. Yet, BLM will readily provide information to other entities. This denial of information (and informed engagement in process) is selective from agencies that supposedly serve the public interest and manage public resources.

WHE have been involved in situations where we did not get any information, after having to FOIA, until BLM took irrevocable action involving wild horses. (we will address this more in part two).

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The current system is not “overly burdensome” to federal agencies, it is overly burdensome to the public and institutions in the private sector that guard the public interest.

The Interior Dept is complaining about the rise in FOIA requests. They are complaining about the rise in FOIA litigation. 

If agencies would simply provide information online, or answer direct questions by providing requested information, the backlog of FOIA requests would diminish. So would FOIA litigation.

(more coming in part two soon. including the proposed changes to FOIA in 2019, what changed and what did not, and a look at some FOIAs in real time.)


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Categories: Wild Horse Education