Educate Yourself (part 1, Deconstruction)

No pictures, no video. This post is for those that want to hit advocacy “hard core.” We will link the pages in this series to the introduction page here:

As a wild horse and burro advocate, or anyone that cares about public land and resources, you find yourself facing a complicated process to engage a conversation to create valid change.

Some of the difficulty is rooted in long standing issues and some feels like rapid change. Yet every situation we find ourselves in has an evolution that often needs to be deconstructed before the actual change sought can occur.

We know this is frustrating. We also know that because of this reality you can easily be misled into taking action that is counter productive to the changes you actually seek to assist.

We find ourselves facing issues that involve resource preservation (a dead range supports nothing), removals, sterilization (scalpels) and entrenched methodology that has created “crisis” dependence for organizations that leads to ineffective advocacy (scream to promote an agenda that often has little to do with issues and more to do with organizations).

We are working on comments to an “EA.” In order for you to understand the comments and why WHE engages that process as we do, you need to understand “how we got here.” Then you can engage as an advocate, or not if you feel your interest is served in existing process. Time is a precious thing as multiple issues escalate and repetitive efforts will not appropriately cover all that needs “done.”



The first item to deconstruct is the perception people have of the Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act (WFRH&B Act). This Act essentially creates federal jurisdiction over wild horses and burros on public land, gives the Department of Interior (DOI) a lot of discretion in management practices and uses “shall” in very few places except “humane.” The distinction between “shall” and “may” are very important as you begin to understand the laws that govern public land and how to engage process.

In creating federal jurisdiction the practice of “mustanging” was supposed to end (horses being removed like private property and sold off for fertilizer and chicken feed).

Federal jurisdiction created an outrage among those that were engaged in the practice, predominantly the ranching community. Federal jurisdiction over public land was already a contentious issue. Any and all government oversight (even though a lot of it was intended to stop people from killing each other over a blade of grass) was resented.

The Act has been amended from it’s original multiple times. These amendments were intended to erode protections and were the result of lobby efforts by livestock. The most outrageous is the Burns Amendment that allowed the federal government to sell wild horses to slaughter. (Appropriations defunds the provision every year, but until the provision is repealed it will be a yearly fight to keep defunding language in Appropriations).


The very first “roundup” of wild horses under federal jurisdiction came with the very first legal action against it. Our public lands had been hammered by over a century of over grazing by domestic livestock. “Use” was not based on scientific evaluation of sustainable use, but on historic use. An absurdity when you read the litany of documentation available throughout the history of public land grazing that demonstrates the cost to the land. It is painful to read every instance of abuse and the constant lack of restriction to protect our wild places, usually because of fear of political and physical ramifications.

The ruling in that case made any action to “manage” wild horses subject to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and stated clearly that wild horses could not be removed to create more grazing for domestic livestock.


You must also accept that very little has been done in the last 40 years (since the Act was passed) to address this core issue. This is a key factor in the compounding of problems AND a factor in the creation of repetitive behaviors in ineffective management and advocacy.


As advocates you often see “NEPA” thrown around as if it some magical term that requires a law degree to wield. Organizations and the government throw it around as comment letters go out or legal challenges are made. “NEPA” simply refers to a process of paperwork under specific federal guidelines.


“Comment letters” are generally associated with this process. However, you MUST understand that this is not a popularity contest, it is a process of analysis. Comment letters (public participation) must engage each step of the NEPA ladder with comments appropriate to each rung (just as NEPA analysis documents created by the government must be appropriate to each step). The objective to “public comment” is to point out errors in analysis in process or to provide additional information for analysis. One person can point out the deficit or one million, it does not change the relevancy to process, it might however generate a press release.

(note:”You give too much grass to cows,” is not an appropriate comment on a roundup EA. If you want to address grazing, you need to address land use plans and EA’s done for grazing permits).

In addition to engaging the process to point out flaws in analysis, comments can also assist in solidifying “standing” for legal action. The Interior Board of Land Appeals (IBLA, called “cow court” in many circles) requires participation in “comments” in order to file claim. Federal court does not, although participation in “comments” can solidify any challenge to someone’s right to file claim (“standing”).

In order to challenge an action in court you need to have an actionable item. What a lot of people fail to recognize is that in most countries you can not sue your government. In the US we can, but we must meet certain criteria. The most common pathway is through the Administrative Procedures Act (APA). Then you need to “stand on something” and for wild horses and burros it is most commonly NEPA or the WFRH&B Act. (This may be “TMI” for many).

Filing litigation is often simply pointing out that a step in paperwork was not finished. If a suit is won that has been filed this way, it has done nothing to change the outcome, just delay it. If the win is insignificant in scope the decision could simply be “amended” in the “NEPA” process and move forward without another hiccup.

If you can actually get a failure of analysis on a significant issue then you may have stopped that significant issue from repeating in other actions moving forward (but that can require more litigation). If other laws are violated in addition (First Amendment, WFRH&B Act) you can set legal precedent that can build other litigation to actually change things.

This IS how law evolves, think “civil rights movement.”Unless you can achieve success in creation of laws through Congressional action (legislatively) this is the only other option to change law.

Sending a million comment letters, or filing because someone forgot a footnote in a step of paperwork, does not do anything to change anything. I know that is not “popular” to say, but it is a truth. Because people want to be “involved” these comment letter storms have increased and so has the “you forgot this insignificant paperwork” on an EA litigation.

The only place a “popularity vote” counts is at the voting booth. Contact legislators and express your opinion. Then vote accordingly.


Getting Ahead

It is very hard to compete with ingrained patterns. Patterns have been set to appease profit driven uses on public land by federal agencies. Patterns are set by those that receive preferential treatment to continue such treatment. Patterns are created in advocacy.

Getting ahead of the NEPA process by engaging land use planning, and process addressing uses that impact wild horses and burros, can be a good use of time.

Appropriately addressing process requires site specific documentation, another good use of time (that is not done as often as it should be).

We tried very hard to get the public focused on the new planning process spurred by Sage Grouse (a huge issue with a lot of money being poured back into compounding problems, not fixing them). Other uses like livestock are extremely organized and engaged. Most “wild horse” organizations could not even describe the proposed changes.

We tried very hard to get the public focused on addressing escalating drought and the political drama it was creating (think Oregon and the “State’s Right” agenda). That agenda is widespread and effecting every use of public land that does not reap massive profits. Anyone that wants “wild places” should be terrified.

We are very aware that “unsocial media” has created a mindset that if you can not learn it in “40 characters or less” it is not worth knowing. This fact has made finding resources to get ahead of the storm very hard.

This is the only way to protect our wild places and our wild ones.

National Academy of Sciences (NAS)

In June of 2013 the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released it’s report on the BLM wild horse and burro program.

The 400 page report is the greatest tool we have for reform. It is also the one tool that is being manipulated to suit every agenda under the sun. The main agenda in the document  is one of creating a simple truth to build equitable range management. Is that not the goal?

For years wild horse advocates were accused of being overly emotional and uniformed. Hard core advocacy was promoting “humane management, data based decisions, transparency and fertility control.” YES, that is what hard core advocacy was looking for.

The NAS study was prohibited (yes, that is the word) from addressing humane handling. We simply did that, successfully in court, and the first policy under the Act is now in place in 2015. (We addressed transparency in the courts as well and won that one too).

The other areas, “data based decisions and fertility control,” were confirmed by the NAS as valid. NAS stated that BLM fails to provide any hard data to formulate justified decisions and that fertility control is an option, instead of removals. NAS confirmed advocacy assertions that broad scale removals (the only tool used by BLM) leads to increased birth rates, counterproductive unless your objective is to overcrowd holding facilities.

Even with the NAS report at hand the BLM still accused advocates of being “overly emotional” and “critics of the program.”

If you have not read the report you can download it here

Advocacy is legitimate. Every legitimate pursuit has a fringe element. Fringe elements can be extremely destructive to progress.

(In the next installment we are going to address the NAS report in further detail).


What is very interesting has been the livestock response to recent management decisions. If BLM wants to paint an interest as “overly emotional,” it is not the majority of wild horse advocates.

Centuries of catering to one interest above all others (livestock) has led to any restriction being one for violent confrontation accompanied by a new phenomenon, the “cowboy that cries.”

At this juncture in advocacy we are caught in a storm that resembles three hurricanes hitting the shore from different directions. The potential for devastation is immense. But that also means that there is potential to not just “board the windows” but “ride the storm to a new landscape.”


In the next installments we are going to discuss “reconstruction.” We are going to address the evolution of public land grazing, fertility control for wild horses and burros and what appropriate management could look like.