Horseback Magazine

Our founder Laura Leigh was a journalist/photojournalist for Horseback Magazine and submitted multiple pieces in her earlier years of advocacy. She has covered a number of equine related events yet primarily reports about wild horses and burros. The list of articles she has written are too extensive to feature here. We have added just a few.

New foal with family band

New wild foal with family band

BLMs Wild Horse and Burro Program Simply Lacks Honest Leadership – or the rantings of a frustrated advocate

• February 24, 2014 • 

By Laura Leigh – Horseback Magazine, Founder/President Wild Horse Education.

RENO, (Wild Horse Education) – For the better part of the last decade wild horse advocates and the Bureau of Land Management  have been at odds. Advocates have been warning BLM that a crisis is looming if changes to the wild horse and burro program are not made. BLM leadership simply kept the blinders on and disregarded anything that challenged their historic practices as inappropriate.

A BLM internal memo sent by Wild Horse and Burro Division Chief Joan Guilfoyle in August of last year became the subject of an Associated Press story last week by Scott Sonner. The article notes several “strategies” in the coming months including suspension of roundups until animals can be adopted out of holding facilities, permanently sterilizing animals, and “for the first time euthanizing wild horses on the range.”

This type of “discussion” within BLM management has been seen before – only by accident. In 2008 BLM internal working documents leaked, including The Herd Management Options Planning Document which  discussed options such as sterilizing, having advocates pay for holding costs by calling facilities “preserves,” and most distressing, euthanizing wild horses.

In 2009 BLM released the following statement in a fact sheet citing the “challenges” in the program, “The cost of keeping animals removed from Western rangelands in holding facilities is spiraling out of control and preventing the agency from successfully managing other parts of the program, such as gathers and adoptions.” Yet they did not change management practices and continued to use “removals” as the primary management option.

Former Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar released his plan for wild horse and burro management. Former Director of the BLM Bob Abbey hailed this as a “A New Direction.” The plan involved removal, expansion of birth control, sterilization and the creation of seven “preserves” to accommodate 25,000 sterilized animals. A quote from a NY Times articlereads: “Unlike the 180 existing, unmanned federal wild-horse areas in the West, Mr. Salazar said, the new, staffed preserves would seek to draw visitors and promote environmental tourism. “We want to showcase the herds,” he said.” The “New Direction” also stated: “In addition to the preserves, federal officials will try to loosen current rules under which wild horses and burros can be adopted, so that more people will be able to take one home.” We can only speculate as to the nature of the loosening of the rules perhaps including sales of wild horses like those to kill buyer Tom Davis and the “Missing 1700” presumed sent to slaughter houses as was revealed last year when the killer buyer couldn’t’ account for what happened to the animals..

In 2010 BLM created a “public workshop” that took place in Denver. The workshop was contracted through the U.S. Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution and was run by moderator Michael Hardy. At the heavily attended meeting there were proposals presented by advocates. Names and numbers were taken by the BLM to facilitate follow up on ideas after a lively two day discussion. Nothing ever seemed to translate from the meeting into practice.

At the workshop a few notable quotes from BLM officials were made. I attended the meeting and questioned Lily Thomas, BLM representative dealing with issues of “access” to wild horse roundups and facilities, “why was it important for BLM to control access?” I asked if people just “see it” they can make up their own minds. Ms. Thomas responded that BLM could not allow access because the images that had reached social media created a problem for BLM because “working with wild horses is not a pretty sight” and BLM does not do a good job educating the public to what is happening. (see youtube here:–2u6pvCY )

This article could go into depth on several subjects here. We could next discuss any one of the following items:

  • Legal battles that have gone up, down and back up the court system attempting to gain access to wild horses and burros.
  • BLM continuing to insist that it handles wild horses humanely after litigation efforts gained orders against agency conduct, and BLM still has not presented a specific policy (the current “memo” simply gives authority to those doing the roundup to police themselves).
  • BLM treated only 332 mares of the 4702 wild horses rounded up in 2013 in a complete failure of appropriate use of birth control.
  • Earlier this month at the Nevada Tri-RAC meeting BLM updated the board that Madeleine Pickens has retracted her “eco-sanctuary” proposal but provided no other information.
  • The National Academy of Sciences report gave BLM a “failing grade” on accurate data use across the board in the wild horse and burro program.
  • The BLM wild horse and burro program has been dubbed a “tax payer burden” that costs about $80 million a year. Yet the General Accountability Office report  states our public lands grazing program cost $144 million in 2005 and received only $21 million in grazing fee receipts (while massive livestock production creates the greatest surface impact to public lands and accounts for less than 4% of livestock production nationwide).
  • The Nevada Association of Counties (NACO) and the Farm Bureau have filed an anti-horse legal action in court that demands wild horses be removed and even destroyed.

Yet we will focus on the clear lack of overall leadership capabilities by those at the helm of the BLM.  The “new direction” that former Director Bob Abbey spoke of in 2009 has simply been to run the train down the same track at full speed.

In order to create a “new direction” we need to begin to hear a bit of common sense, admission of mistakes and honest intentions. That would be leadership.

Range conditions that exist on our western public lands are affected by a multitude of factors simultaneously. The BLM Wild Horse and Burro program does not exist in a vacuum.

Within the approximate 11% of public land that wild horses occupy all other users continue to exist as well. These interests include livestock grazing, extraction for minerals and energy, recreation and wildlife. A far greater toll is taken on public land from livestock and mineral extraction then from wild horse use(or any of the other uses combined). Livestock grazing is an intensive user of our available public forage. Much of the current use of public land was based on “historic use” not on anything resembling a scientific model. Recent studies published by groups such as Western Watersheds Project and the Center for Biological Diversity have revealed that the damage done to our public rangelands by commercial livestock production is extreme while public land grazing produces less than 5 percent of beef utilized in industry. Extractive projects can tie up water sources and create vast areas of surface disturbance.

Currently our western landscape is experiencing drought. Drought is a natural part of the cyclical nature of the range. However if over use of the public land has been allowed for decades through permitting uses that use available resources (water) through extraction and (forage) livestock production coupled with a multitude of legislative moves aimed at increasing this production, is it a wonder the range is stressed?

Yet when you read articles published about our western landscape they are usually focused on wild horses and the “burden” they create to the tax-payer and the range. Public land issues are largely un-reported in mainstream media.  Often missing from any discussion is the fact that the drought, and over stressed ranges, exist outside of wild horse and burro management areas. If wild horses are the problem, then these factors would only be present where there are wild horses. That is simply not the case.

If the intention is to manage wild horses and burros as an integral part of the public lands the current track must be changed now. To repeat the same old songs we have heard before, as Guilfoyle does in her memo “increase adoption, sterilize and kill,” is not leadership.

Can’t we ever get someone at the helm of the BLM willing to “think” instead of “parrot?”

Tools to appropriately assess the forage that is actually available on the range for specific uses such as wildlife, wild horses, and livestock exist today. They must be utilized to allot that forage with an aim to protect wild horse herds in a genetically viable fashion (herd management areas with less than 150 animals are not sustainable wild populations) instead of attempting to meet a production goal for a livestock interest. Wild horses and burros must be allowed the ability to move throughout an area in true “free roaming behavior” to utilize available resources (fencing must come down). Only after wild horses have the appropriate defined use can any additional allocation of resources be made to other uses. A recognition that wild horses and burros are unnaturally confined to invisible boundary lines and other uses are not, must occur. Allocation to other uses must be done not only for the good years, but the bad.

We must also consider geographical considerations. Locales that are currently labelled Herd Area, instead of Herd Management Area (HMA), are areas that BLM claimed wild horses existed but habitat was unsuitable. There are several of these areas that currently have domestic livestock production. If cows can graze there, so can wild horses. These areas must be immediately evaluated for inclusion into HMA status. Additionally there are areas that are considered off “HMA” that were not included in the original boundary lines as either HA or HMA land. Many of these areas have either cyclical or continual wild horse use. These areas must be evaluated as inclusive of HMA boundaries even if it means we have to admit we “made a mistake” when we drew an arbitrary line in the desert likely influenced by powerful local politics. The excuse for not doing this obvious step is that current practices are locked in some ancient or inaccurate Resource Management Plan. Then roll up the sleeves and amend the document. To continue to operate under a framework that is corrupt, is corrupt. Nothing will come of it but corruption.

Appropriate Management Level, or the number of horses that are allowed to be on the range, was set by intense involvement from the livestock industry as the faulty framework was created. The intensive NAS report cites an across the board lack of data to support management practices in this program. That would include any supposed “data” used in setting these “AMLs.” This must be rectified.

If we must continue to exist under the premise that ranges are “over populated,” at least temporarily as data is gathered to create a defensible “AML,” then appropriately utilize PZP while you amend the corrupted plans. Stop saying PZP (current temporary birth control vaccine) is a failure at curtailing populations as actual utilization is almost microscopic.

At the very heart of legislation passed to protect wild horses and burros is the premise of humane treatment. As a leader you must stop your practice of blaming the horse for the inability to “gather” them humanely. It is offensive that you simply state you handle them appropriately, fail to create a specific policy, have court orders that reflect your failure and simply continue to operate “status quo.” Horses are horses. A stressed and terrorized animal will always be harder to catch. Repetitive documentation proves that horses pushed during extreme temperatures, greater distances, during foaling season and then handled by rough crews rushing to “bring in more horses” create the vast majority of “hold your breath” moments during capture and processing. Creating a “memo” that gives the authority to determine what is “right” into the hands of those that perpetrate the “wrong,” is simply insane. Leadership carries with it the responsibility to set the rules and to reprimand when required.

We don’t need another “public workshop” or million dollar study. We need real leadership that recognizes that management of public land was not intended to cater to a handful of people that reap a private profit. We need leadership that is not afraid to say “mistakes were made,” and then fix them. We need leadership that is not afraid of transparency. Without it we are doomed to ride this train on the same old track and watch our wild public rangeland disappear out of sight… on the back of our wild horses.


Links of interest about Laura Leigh and Horseback Magazine, links too lengthy to list them all:

Journalist Joined by 15 news Organizations in fight for access:

Report from the field, December 2012:

Report from the field May 2014: is a Nevada non-profit devoted to gaining protection for wild horses and burros from abuse, slaughter and extinction.

Links of interest:

Wild Horse Education Website: