A Memory (First Amendment)

Today, WHE carries legal action against “the spay plan” in Utah, an objection against the plan to drive Ochoco down to 12-57 wild horses, actions against two livestock grazing decisions (10 different permits), is engaged with a coalition of environmental orgs working to restrict expansion of mining that draws waters tables down in the arid West impacting everything that lives on our public lands. WHE is pushing hard for Oversight of the Wild Horse and Burro program to force transparency, accountability and to stop any entity from manipulating the system for personal gain that sells the wild horse and burro off to the highest bidder. In this Covid year our field teams have continued to venture out to gather the critical range data we need to address the needs of our wild ones.

An important anniversary of groundbreaking litigation that has had an impact beyond the world of wild horses.

A Groundbreaking Valentines Day Memory 

On Feb 14, 2012 our founder was at the Stone Cabin roundup. After years of legal action that broke ground in the fight against abuse (to this day WHE is the only org to ever take BLM to court over abuse) and a long and arduous First Amendment fight, she was once again facing obstructions to simply view capture and handling. Years had already passed trying to have discussions and then face the “on again, off again” access games at roundups. That day she could not see capture and everyone in the field was agitated.

At that roundup she had already faced the social media drama storm that saw a man shave his head, place a before and after picture online, and claim he was coming to the roundup to, in his words, “It will be more fun to kill her with my bare hands.” Why? simply because she won cases against abuse?

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The issues at the operation included a BLM employee egging the crazy person on, confrontations with the contractor and more. However, none of this was an oddity for operations of that time and our founder, that had already been running roundups every day for years, simply said to BLM “No one needs this sh&t. A storm is coming in and the agitator will probably leave. I will simply help you with the adoption event for a few days.”

She did. She helped organize outreach to the general public and transport options for many of the adopters. That storm? all of the staff, except two, had retreated to the safety of the motels and Leigh helped the vet, that could only come that day, draw blood, vaccinate, and prep the brand inspections. She was a pair of hands and he simply assumed she must work for BLM. That day a BLM ranger worked the chute as well because of the shortage of personnel.

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At that roundup she also met Dave Phillips. That day began the year long investigation into the BLM sales program and uncovered the “Salazar/Davis” link, where one killbuyer had purchased over 1700 wild horses and shipped them to slaughter. Dave later wrote his book “Wild Horse Country.” 

A lot of ground was broken at that roundup in 2012. However, the greatest leap forward came on Valentines Day.

Exhausted, all she wrote in her blog was:

I was on the range… had no clue. I showed up this a.m. in the bitter cold and there was no public access point at the trap… “Who in their right mind would come out on a day like today?”…. (Never said the mind was “right” ). Could not see handling at holding. Cannot see enough to assess horses and handling, at all. There have been areas of improved dialogue working on the Stone Cabin adoption, but real access is a major issue… I left with a headache thinking tomorrow might be better.

As soon as I had signal I saw I had a text from my attorney and a BLM employee, that just said “Call Urgent.” I called the employee. He read me the decision with so much emotion he had to stop twice. I could hear those that signed our Constitution into law… applaud… 

The First Amendment case, that had gone up the court system to the Ninth Circuit, had won. All of that time spent running range to court, staying all day even when held to zero visibility, broke ground.

That one case changed everything. After a roundup BLM would state that whatever an advocate named in a legal action was not “moot,” or unable to move forward. The access case showed that was simply false and issues repeated. We tagged  our humane cases to it and were awarded an Injunction. Other actions we had could now move forward. Not only did that case open roundups to daily view, it allowed other cases to move forward, after a roundup, and the “mootness doctrine” was a thing of the past.

That case built the basis to, not only move First Amendment issues of access forward, it moved litigation against abuse. That case built the basis for legal action that stopped the experimental spaying of mares in Oregon and is a component of todays fight against spaying in Utah.

That case has now been cited in civil rights cases nationwide over 100 times. Federal Judges have now used that case to base rulings on as a “gold standard” of what the First Amendment truly means.

From a case in July 2020 that stopped the arrest of journalists covering protests:  “An open government has been a hallmark of our democracy since our nation’s founding,” U.S. District Judge Michael Simon wrote Thursday, citing precedent from the Ninth Circuit case Leigh v. Salazar. “When wrongdoing is underway, officials have great incentive to blindfold the watchful eyes of the fourth estate. The free press is the guardian of the public’s interests and the independent judiciary is the guardian of the free press.”

A case that was made to simply be able to document and assess the condition of wild horses during capture, and to open closed facilities to the public, broke ground far beyond Wild Horse Country.

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It took 3 more years, and more litigation, to get the Comprehensive Animal Welfare Policy (CAWP) into contracts. It took 2 more years to get the daily access policy into play, after court ordered mediation. It took 3 more years to get through the door to try to create management plans.

Advocacy can often feel like “3 steps forward, 2 steps back.” It is particularly difficult when big corporate money tries to sell off the real fight for a deal, like the “Ten Years to AML” crowd. But progress gets made, slow. We must work hard to make sure the progress that is made continues to grow.

The real world experience of working in the field, using that information to break legal ground, must continue.

Over the last few years we have continued to break ground in the fight for the land our wild ones need to survive, moved against continuing abuse and pushed back against those that abuse their authority and continue to blame the horses as they push to sterilize our remaining herds. 

 You can help us stay in the fight, today. 

Categories: Lead