Wild Horse Education

Humane Handling Week (History and Why YOU need to speak out)

On Wednesday, BLM will be holding a hearing on the use of motorized vehicles in the wild horse and burro program.

Your voice is needed. We need to show BLM that all of our herds matter (and every single horse or burro matters) to the public.

Please send comments in on the Motorized Vehicle Hearing by tomorrow. INFO on how and a sample introduction HERE. Basically we are asking each of you to demand that  BLM supply the public with a real hearing as intended by Law. BLM must provide the public with a list of grievances and issues raised by the public and an analysis document that resolves these issues. These hearings are intended to address these valid concerns, not green-light repetitive wrong-doing. 

This week we will focus on the history of the battle to gain an avenue to address issues of concern involving abuse and just how much work BLM puts into maintaining a lack of accountability. Your voice is needed and we want you to understand why. 

Every advocate should take the time to understand each layer of the program, the history (how we got here) to better understand how we can move forward. An important long-read for you to bookmark and come back to. 

Horses run to a lather at Antelope in sub freezing weather… we should never see this again, ever.

In 1959 a bill passed, referenced as “the Wild Horse Annie Act,” that banned the use of motorized vehicles, mustanging of any form and the poisoning of water holes. (Learn more about the 1959 Law HERE) The law was not being enforced and in 1971, The Wild Horse and Burro Act superseded that law, in the original language continuing the ban of the use of motorized vehicles.

When motorized vehicle use was approve for capture in 1976 (after the 1971 Act originally banned it) an annual hearing was added as a requirement to address serious concerns that reinstating motorized vehicle use in any way for the capture of wild horses and burros would be inhumane. (Federal Land Management and Policy Act, FLPMA)

Annual hearings were the initial attempt to gain accountability and create a platform to address abuses associated with capture of wild horses and burros.

Shortly after the hearings were required by FLPMA, Velma Johnston passed away. It is amazing how one voice among many created an environment where BLM knew that “she knew” and they could not pull the wool over her eyes. BLM took advantage and pushed both removals and began to literally turn the hearing into a meaningless “box” they check instead of a meaningful hearing.

Additional reading from  Wild Horse Annie, Velma Johnston and her fight to save the mustang by Alan J. Kania:

“After Annie died, BLM director Robert Burford called all the wild horse and burro groups together for the purpose of providing an opportunity to meet directly with the BLM staff to share their views on how the wild horse and burro program should be implemented by the federal government. Each wild horse and burro group arrived in Denver with it’s own personal agenda; it was clear there was no consensus among the groups.”

“The unexpected announcement stunned many of the representatives of the attending groups; for others, the mandate sailed over their heads. Instead of uniting behind a common cause, each group went it’s separate direction. If they had joined together it would have been a formidable coalition to pick up where Wild Horse Annie left off.”

“Later Burford said with a smile that he “had no idea what would happen.” (In other words, he claimed he engaged in stakeholder input when he knew, without Velma, there was nothing he could not get away with.)

From 1978-2009 (the date FLPMA approved motorized vehicle use and the first court case) maybe once or twice a year someone would spend a day or two watching roundups. The reports were a mixed bag of egregious conduct and concerns.

WHE had to fight in court to get daily access… and we went every single day even if we were held behind a mountain or chased and threatened. After we filed the first court case, we were offered red carpet access to observe roundups and declined it… the right to observe is a right guaranteed under the First Amendment for all, equally. Eventually, we won that case for all.

A BLM employee confided in our founder that he was “tired of shooting horses” that the contractor ran directly into stock trailers (no sorting or settling), but he felt he had no support to even say anything… and he felt bullied.

WHE participated in these annual hearings (that used to be held on a state-by-state basis as the law intended) and found there was never even a written report, minutes or findings. Definitely no attempts to resolve issues and we knew even internally there was a climate where even employees felt they could not talk about it.

So we had to litigate the abuses we saw as BLM was doing absolutely nothing to address this important issue. Humane management is a key tenant of the law. BLM was not even addressing this issue in the simplest places to define humane management, the roundup and facilities.



At the first hearing BLM just lied about what happened, we won. At the next hearing BLM tried to lie about what happened and claim a bunch of safeguards they had (without proof), we won.  At the next hearing in 2013 BLM tried to claim they had a policy (was not following the policy), we won, again. Do you see a pattern?

Only at the start of fiscal year 2016 did BLM finally include the Comprehensive Animal Welfare Policy (CAWP) into contracts and NEPA documents formalizing CAWP as an operational standard (that they still don’t follow).

If you look at the material BLM uses in public relations you can see the path of regulations (they do not follow) and litigation that forced a policy. In 2010 (after the first lawsuit) they needed something to show the court so they started writing something. In 2013, after the court win they issued a Memorandum to apply the policy to capture (affirming that during the court cases someone wrote something on a piece of paper that no one had even been told to apply). BLM leaves off the actual inclusion in contracts and NEPA in 2016 (we do not know why… unless they are trying to avoid recognizing settlement conferences with advocates? It seems they only recognize settlements with livestock.)

It is worth noting that in 2016 BLM included what they called an “Assessment tool” and “annual review” when they included CAWP in contracts and NEPA.

It should also be noted that the tool (someone was paid to create) was never used and no assessments were done at all from 2016-2021. However, in every single roundup plan approved in those years BLM cites both the motorized vehicle hearing and CAWP in “Gather-EAs” as compliance with analysis requirements under law.

In 2021, BLM finally hired someone to lead CAWP and hand picks a team. The team included private parties with a livestock bent and existing BLM personnel that, strangely, were the leads (offenders) on some of the roundups WHE litigated.

CAWP has been more than inadequate in oversight, assessment, revision and enforcement. (You can read our full review of CAWP HERE).

So how does BLM view the CAWP policy after all the money and time spent on litigation, creation of the policy, hiring a team and spending money to send them into the field? 

Our WHE Freedom of Information Act (FOIA team) gained some insight as we were reviewing material supplied on one of our FOIAs. Our FOIA team has been tracking the true cost of deaths at roundups and following up on a “too fast, too low” pursuit that resulted in a helicopter accident.

WHB CAWP Coordinator job definition: The WHB CAWP Coordinator will lead the implementation, development, and modification of all aspects of the CAWP, including those developed to date as well as future components of the CAWP.

After a news broadcast (post the events in the video above) a chain email began inside BLM. After the Division Chief of the Wild Horse and Burro Program, Holle Waddell, complained that BLM’s “increased efforts did not seem to be enough for some people” the CAWP team lead, Jerrie Bertola, sent this reply:

Does that sound like a lead of an enforcement team for humane handling or a therapist running a support group for offenders? The email chain does not show anyone, anywhere in the chain of command, urging improvement. Are we “picking on” BLM when we expose abuses or “jealous?” Should this team keep their jobs as “enforcers of policy?”

Since 2017, there has been a huge corporate push (indicated by Path Forward) that has turned the public, media and Congress to focus on one thing, population growth suppression (roundups and a mash-up of fertility control) solidifying a false narrative that overpopulation is some type of number one problem and the poor BLM just needs more money and help.

Basic issues like transparency and humane handling (on and off range) have been drowned out by big corporate funding.

There is progress and ways to keep BLM accountable. But BLM seems to ignore them except in public relations and unless there is litigation or a wave of public outrage.

This is why we need YOUR VOICE.

Speak or write comments addressing the issues of basic humane care at the motorized vehicle hearing (HERE).

Take the 4-step action on the budget and let your representatives know that there is so much more to address in the budget besides the “population growth suppression” big corporate lobby and livestock want (HERE).

What WHE is doing

Are we litigating this issue now? Yes. WHE has included the absurdity of calling these hearings compliance under NEPA in Gather-EAs in two cases filed this month. One of the filings was for Stone Cabin, an extremely important herd speaking to the history of the program itself.

Could we win again in court on a purely humane handling case again? Yes. However, litigation is extremely expensive. Litigation against abuse is an extremely difficult process that must be done rapidly (our founder called it “beat-the-clock” with no sleep from roundup to laptop to courtroom). If we are able to in the coming season, and BLM continues to make unfounded assertions of following some policy or another to comply with the law and failing, we will.

Help keep us in the fight.


Categories: Wild Horse Education