Wild Horse Education

Truth or Dare: Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)

Access often denied. When it is given, it is often obscured.

As a public interest group WHE utilizes FOIA to report information significant to the public good. In order to fully participate in the NEPA process WHE (and the public require) information. In order to report to the public comprehensively, we often have to rely on FOIA. (Scroll to red text to see a few notes on findings from a comprehensive FOIA review of BLM gather operations our team is working on. When the paper is complete, we will share our report and supporting documentation gained through FOIA and the additional processes we had to engage to obtain the information.)

From range through holding and beyond, what really happens?


FOIA is a cornerstone of openness in our government.  It compels federal agencies to yield documents relating to government operations and performance. Or at least, that is the stated purpose.

When you ask BLM a question it can feel like playing “truth or dare.”

Can I have a copy of that finalized NEPA document from ten years ago? Can I get a copy of the inventory record? Can you provide me an accurate HMA boundary line map? Whatever you may ask for, that should be public record and in the office.  Far too often the answer is simply “I don’t have that information. You need to file a FOIA.”

In essence, that response is not appropriate. The agency should simply answer simple requests for information that are easily accessible to them and should all be readily available as public knowledge. Instead, these “truth or dare” games add to the backlog of FOIAs facing federal agencies and cost the taxpayer more money and many times organizations have to file lawsuits to get the information, costing taxpayers even more money.

The FOIA requires agencies to proactively post online certain categories of information, including frequently requested records. So why doesn’t BLM have an online portal that includes facility data on the horses fate while there and on-range herd inventory records? Instead, BLM will tell you to file a FOIA.

One of the line items in our request for 2023 Appropriations is that BLM create an online data portal for the Wild Horse and Burro Program. (More here on FY23 budget and action item in red.)

Providing information to the public is contingent on us getting data, some of which we can obtain firsthand.  However, when relevant information is tightly held onto by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), we have to play the game of truth or dare.

An official news release from BLM may notify the public of a gather plan for removal of wild horses or burros.  When asking for supportive data behind the often generalized information given in the document being used to justify the removal, BLM’s common response is FOIA it!

How can you comment on an EA, that requires you as a participant to determine if the agency failed in analysis, if you do not have a complete picture of what they claim to have analyzed? Another common response is that the information is “outside the scope.” (This is often the case as the agency has failed miserably to create Herd Management Area Plans (HMAP) where that information would actually be found as the agency should be evaluating forage allocations, AML, genetics and habitat needs in the HMAP, not a “gather plan.”)

How is BLM setting appropriate management levels (AMLs), the number of horses that can be on the range?  If we don’t know how AML is set, if BLM is not being transparent, then how can the problems with how AML is set be addressed? 

If we don’t see the handling of horses after their capture, how can we address the issues of handling? There was a time when BLM included a facility report with their roundup updates. That facility report included online would extend for 30 days beyond the last day of capture and included the intake days and numbers and any reports on deaths (including vet reports). They stopped publishing that information a few years ago. Now, you need to FOIA.

Public concerns over animal welfare are one of the top priorities for many members of the public. During a capture operation there is often debate and contradiction. We consider it part of our job to document the roundup, share the information with the public, take immediate action to stop inappropriate conduct and find the sources of misinformation so that concise and responsible action can be taken to address the concerns.

Ongoing WHE FOIA investigation into capture operations (notes)

The Antelope roundup of summer 2021 had more than its fair share of grievances: aggressive flying, barbed wire, age of foals, etc. August is foaling season on the range. However, that reality is not included in agency paperwork.

In the video above you can see a foal run over at time code :55. You can see multiple instances of disturbing content in the video as well. Our report that day included the issues with aggressive flight (appearing to knock over a horse) and the trampling of the colt.

Immediately online there were claims that we made it up, edited the photos (we also had video) and that BLM said nothing of the sort happened. We tracked down that info and found it was attributed to BLM NV public affairs: “Finally, I am unaware of any helicopter incident where a mare and foal involved and the foal being trampled; it is my understanding that there may be edited pictures on the internet but after staff viewed their pictures, documentation and interviews, there was not such an incident. Again, on the website, you will find detail in the daily gather reports.” The response from BLM claimed barbed wire was not an issue, foals being separated was not at issue, no collisions occurred, etc.

FOIA documents show that BLM spent more time sending each other alerts on what WHE posted that day, how to discount what we posted, than to address any potential issue at hand.

Our FOIA investigation also affirmed that BLM COR has completely shirked responsibility to complete an After Action Review (required by the Codes of Federal Regulations). Our FOIA was met with: “A search was conducted and after a thorough search of our files, the BLM has determined there are no records responsive to your request.”

Chaos at the Antelope roundup August 3-5

One Foal: putting the pieces together.

Our documentation showed chaotic operations where foals were seen wandering on their own as the helicopter chased bands.

On August 4 BLM reported the death of a foal attributed to “pre-existing” conditions on their public information page. The foal had been picked up by the chopper pilot and taken to holding.

Our FOIA investigation showed the vet report found that the (according to BLM) 10 day-2 week old foal was dehydrated and starving. The report was inconclusive: “From the findings, it would appear this foal either had been orphaned on range or, its mother was not milking or allowing it to nurse.”

BLM chose to simply list the death as a pre-existing, non-gather related death in their daily report they make public.

Comprehensive Animal Welfare Program (CAWP) is clear this is unacceptable practice:  Helicopters chasing wild horses at a distance and speed that is causing young foals to fall behind and be separated from their bands, resulting in foals being roped and dragged or carried into the trap.

The BLM response to this was to focus on denial that a foal was “dragged” (even though that was not the issue) and make a claim that the foal was abandoned before the roundup began.

Contradicting the vet report, the response to written concerns that was drafted by the agency, states:No horse was dragged during the gather! The two-week-old foal which the public (k)new nothing about until notified by the I.C. was found by itself with no other horses around and was brought into the gather area by the helicopter.

AND “After the horse had died a necropsy revealed it had no milk or any fluid in its stomach which likely resulted from being abandoned from its mom prior to the gather operation starting (this was explained to your observers by the I.C.)

The vet report (officially stated) the foal was “found weak on range and brought in by helicopter, had not kept up with group.” It was also inconclusive as to the reason.  “From the findings, it would appear this foal either had been orphaned on range or, its mother was not milking or allowing it to nurse.” (Vet report obtained through FOIA)

The foal was found on the third day of operations. A foal this age nurses (at least) once per hour and consumes about 15 liters of milk daily. An orphan of this age would be fed every 1-2 hours; a wild baby feeds the same. It did not take long for this baby to reach the state of dehydration noted in the vet report. It is more than highly likely that the mare was chased off her new baby the day before and the baby died

Taking into account basic physiology of foals, this death is in fact gather-related. Any other assertion is simply illogical and the twisting of the circumstance, to “blame the horse,” is obscene. 

When you look at the amount of time spent trying to figure out how to respond to the public compared to the time spent addressing this type of occurrence? (More will be shown in our extensive review coming soon)

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The agency’s newly-formed CAWP team was present for 2 days of the operation, August 4-5. (The agency has set up an online portal where you can access all of their CAWP reports.)

The BLM oversight report noted in only 2 days of observation the following:

  • Hot shot (electric prod) use was not being documented and included in the daily report.
  • Foals were separated for at least 6 hours on one day, over 4 hours the next, from mares.
  • Roped horses were not being marked for re-evaluation.
  • Padding on overhead bars was missing or insufficient.
  • Hay placement was not providing access to all horses at temporary corral.
  • The mare and foal pen was over the stocking capacity (overcrowded).
  • Foals were kept in a single file alley for more than 30 minutes.
  • Stock trailers were not cleaned creating a hazard of slipping over debris.
  • Contractor was argumentative; making excuses instead of working toward compliance.

These observations primarily discuss holding (where we were not permitted to observe handling) and show a deficit in providing any oversight of trapping, relying on reports from the COR. (The same COR that failed to do an After Action Review.)

The BLM CAWP team gave the roundup a 91%, a “Good,” rating.

The CAWP report does not talk about the inconsistencies in relaying information to the public, much about capture and does not discuss the foal that was euthanized while they were present for only 2 days of the month long roundup operation.

Attempts to gain clear and accurate information from the BLM remains an ongoing challenge.

However, this article clearly demonstrates how firsthand observation, available information to the public and the FOIA are critical. 

This piece demonstrates only two instances where the conflicting information creates public distrust. 

Our full report, covering multiple roundups, will include” a data set, comparative operations, an evaluation of BLM oversight teams and provide you with documents we obtained through FOIA.

FOIA is a vital tool for every citizen, no matter what your interest.

More soon.

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Categories: Wild Horse Education