Identity Theft


The social order of the herd is key to the identity of the wild horse.

Republished Commentary, LLeigh.


I don’t know how many times I have said “Wild horses and burros are the only animals in our nation whose legal identity is tied to the land it stands.” I start almost every one of our outreach sessions with that phrase. I use that phrase for many reasons. It is so simple to say, but the meaning behind it is so complex.

Under US law the words “wild horse” mean a free roaming horse on BLM or Forest Service Land. Legally, those words do not apply to any other free roaming horses in the US. When we are talking from the perspective of a wild horse that lives on other federal lands the distinction is irrelevant to what the horse does on a daily basis and the challenges faced from encroaching industry (personal identity), but under law the horse is not a “wild horse.”

The legal identity of free roaming horses and burros in the US is complex. Tribal horses are a private property conversation. State horses have distinct terms and conditions set by states. Not all horses and burros on federal land are wild horses. Not all horses and burros managed by the Department of Interior are wild horses. Forest Service is Dept of Agriculture, yet the legal definition belongs to the horses and burros that live there.

The vast majority of free roaming horses in the US live on BLM land and are wild horses through their legal identity.

This distinction is critical when we address law makers or the courts. When we talk about a wild horse born on BLM or FS land we even have a moment of “identity theft” when that horse (or burro) is adopted or sold, the loss of the legal identity “wild horse.”

Legal identity should be a relatively simple concept, for the free roaming horse in the US it is not.

When you are addressing media, law makers and the public they are confused through decades of simply manipulating the circumstance of the “legal identity.” When you are talking to law makers this tragedy is more than apparent. Stacks of photos and documents demonstrating issues on tribal or state land have influenced your legislators. The resulting actions taken will not effect the horses in the images, the “wild horse under law” will face the consequence. Did that make sense?

One such “cluster” of “bad reporting” on drought can be seen HERE. This is not about “soundbites in the news,” it is about the consequence of the actions that create conversations with law and policy makers. (There are also consequences when you tell journalists they “screwed up.” But that is another story.)

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Stallions recently captured have had their personal identity stripped. All they are hard wired to be, the head of a family band, is gone. But they still maintain their legal identity as a “wild horse.” But that can change on a dime, almost literally.

I used to count the number of wild horses I watched removed from the range, with my own eyes. 12,000, 20,000, 29,000, 36,000, 42,000, 50,000 … after a few years I stopped counting. (I had to fight in court to simply witness. Many newcomers do not know about that fight.)

I followed the herds into holding. 12,000. 20,000, 29,000 …. I would search until I found the ones I knew from range and roundup. Many times I never found those I had come to know. The ones I could find were struggling to become something they were not before capture; stallions, mares with no bands, babies weaned so much earlier than in the wild. Babies born and given a tag number that just linked to “born in a facility” with no mention of where it was conceived. What do you call all of this if not “identity theft?” (There was also a legal battle to simply see some of them after capture. Many new to this fight do not know that.)

Then the 29,000, 36,000, 42,000…. disappear. Long term facilities are still closed to public view, except a handful. Those horses and burros still carry the legal identity “wild horse.” But those adopted or sold?

A precious few would get adopted, fewer are still in those homes. Many, far too many, have been sold. After adoption or sale the wild horse again loses their identity, it is now a domestic horse under law. (adoption v sale) That means the horse can be legally sold to slaughter. (note: horse slaughter does not occur on US soil. Horse slaughter is a thriving live export business.)

Yes, BLM wild horses do go to slaughter. Once that title transfers a “wild horse under law” is, again, stripped of their identity. A “wild horse” can not be shipped to slaughter legally, but a domestic can. BLM has amped up efforts to transfer those titles as fast as they can. So again, in the complexity we have assigned to the minimal protections we give the “wild horse” we simply strip identity. (Read about nearly 1800 wild horses sold, identity theft, to one kill-buyer. The investigation took nearly a year and was accomplished primarily through the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA. The last few years BLM has cracked down on answering any request for “difficult” information. )

Are you confused yet? Just defining the wild horse, for purposes of having a valid conversation, can take precious time from the actual battle to protect them.

This little one was born into a family I have watched for over a decade. He looks just like his big brother (that, even at 3, was still in the family band). He was run by a helicopter. Now separated from his mom, awaiting gelding, the identity he had on range is gone. He will never be taught to be a band stallion, have a harem, walk across the valley for water with his own colts and watch those amazing sunsets in the place that was his home. He will be shipped out to the “adoption/sale” events soon. Will he face the second identity theft and be sold this year? It is highly likely.

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Named “Aubrey,” after the lead in the movie “Master and Commander,” has lost his identity and struggles for a place in the bachelor colony that is a holding facility. I have known him for years… and this simply hurts. I know he will disappear and is a prime candidate, like all the stallions, for the next round of identity theft that will end his life, in horror.

BLM is shipping wild horses to “adoption/sale” events and claiming massive increases in adoptions. At each of these events people are given the option to adopt (some with a $1,000 rebate) or to purchase and get a title right away (no matter how old the horse is). FOIAs into the number “adopted or sold” are delayed.  But we are seeing more and more BLM brands at kill auctions.

BLM has an “internet corral.” There are many issues with the site (they are still loading large files, raw from camera. Any novice knows this will make pages hard to load.) Sometimes I will see a few a know. However, usually it is an exercise in frustration. Only a few make the internet. The ones that do are either ones on the way to being “shuffled out fast” or the few that are considered “high profile.”

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Many of the ones I know? just a number now. When the helicopter flew a few people might come for pictures to put on social media (WHE is the only org in history to fight abuse at roundups again and again). But after the sound of the helicopter the attention fades for our wild, wild ones that have now had their identity stolen.

Now they are just a number. A number with an uncertain future.

36,000, 42,000, 50,000, 56,000, 61,000 ….

Captured as a baby, now a number in holding.

The fight for the wild horse begins on the land it stands. Their legal identity is literally defined by the place the hoof hits the dirt.

In that place the wild horses are not treated as their legal identity determines, but as a scapegoat for industry.

The fight for those still wild ends as “just a number” that lost their legal identity.

63,000, 75,000, 89,000…


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Categories: Lead, Wild Horse Education