Wild Horse Education (WHE) works to protect and preserve wild horses and burros on public land. We engage many avenues and issues. We engage planning documents, research range conditions, litigate when required and educate the public and media. Yet an issue central to our mission is the creation of a Humane Handling policy (that has enforceability) for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) wild horse and burro program.
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In 1971 Congress passed the Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act. At the very core of the Act was the premise of “humane” care. The Act itself was passed to curtail the brutal practice of “mustanging.” Mustanging was featured in the well known film “The Misfits” and involved running horses down with aircraft and trucks and tying them up in the desert for transport to be ground up for chicken feed, dog food and fertilizer. The BLM and Forest Service (FS) were given the mandate ” wild free-roaming horses and burros shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death;” and the Secretary of the Interior was vested with the authority to “manage” wild horses and burros on our public land humanely.
In the last several years we have seen horrific images of wild horses and burros being inappropriately handled during capture and in holding facilities.
Conduct that WHE captured on camera led to the first Temporary restraining Order to inhumane conduct in the history of the Act. That occurred at the Triple B (now called Three HMA by the BLM) roundup in 2011. That ruling finally pressured the BLM to do a real internal investigation (investigations prior to the Triple B continually excused BLM and contractor behavior) and admit that the alleged conduct did in fact occur. That conduct included but is not limited to: a wrangler kicking a horse in the head, repetitive hot shot use (including in the face and to foals), dragging a horse by the neck with a rope and even hitting an exhausted animal with the skids of the helicopter. This roundup subsequently gained the first Preliminary Injunction in history to pilot conduct at roundups.
Early in 2012 the Nevada Director for the BLM issued an “Intention Memorandum,” or “IM,” that outlined the states expectation for humane handling of wild horses and burros during capture. The attorneys for BLM submitted this “IM” to the court as if it were policy. The “IM” had very few specifics included. One of the specific items was “no more than three attempts” were to be made to pressure a band into a trap. However if you look at the “IM” what it does it give the power to determine what is “humane” to the exact same people that were responsible for the inappropriate conduct in the first place!
In June of that same year BLM began a “drought emergency” helicopter removal at Jackson Mountain. The BLM handbook prohibits wild horse removals from March 1-July 1 (what BLM denotes as “foaling season”) in all but extreme emergency situations. Instead of publishing that “IM” in it’s decision documents to do the roundup during this fragile time, a watered down version that provided even fewer safeguards was adopted.
WHE President Laura Leigh went to the Winnemucca district the week prior to the removals and met with the District Manager to attempt to address issues of access to observe wild horses and humane care. Promises were made that included avenues to address concerns as they arose. Needless to say those promises were immediately broken.
The Jackson Mountain roundup included new born foals run in excess of 7 miles, bands run during extreme temperatures, lathered horses entering the trap, babies run additional miles and roped as care was not taken to run animals slowly to the traps and a severe lack of access to assess condition of captured animals. In just one run a small band was run back and forth across a valley floor, up and down a mountainside, was fractured and still pursued, a distressed colt was run toward the trap and something happened to that colt that was hidden from view, a mare and foal were pursued and separated back in the mountains and access was denied to observe or even travel down that road. That was just one run.
Litigation ensued and another TRO was gained in federal court prohibiting the BLM from continuing the operation during foaling season outside a small area, as they had not proven an emergency throughout the entire HMA. (It is of note that livestock were grazing the identical pastures that horses were being stampeded through).
Yet this still did not spur BLM to create an actual policy. The insistence that this watered down version of the IM was enough continued… and so did the offensive conduct.
One of the challenges to accountability is that it seems to take an Order from a Federal Judge to gain pro-active action of any sort from the BLM in regards to wild horses and burros. Roundups are often too short in duration to gain documentation, craft the appropriate legal documents, file them in court and get a hearing before the end of an operation. The conduct illustrated here is not limited to the roundups that make a courtroom.
Yet at the end of 2012 the BLM created a ten-year plan for removals at the Owyhee Complex in the Winnemucca District of Nevada. Again the “IM” was attached to the decision documents asserting that BLM handles horses “humanely.”
The first phase of the Owyhee Complex roundup showed repetitive hotshot use, whipping of horses legs, babies run to exhaustion, multiple attempts at the trap to capture, animals run in temperature extremes and even run through barbed wire fencing. Again attempts to view animals at the temporary holding facility to assess their condition were repeatedly thwarted.
The second phase was announced to commence the day prior to operations to capture 50 additional horses from the Complex. Documents were again filed in federal court. Another TRO was issued by a Federal Judge that included stern language as to the courts expectation for handling of animals. (note BLm had already captured horses and was holding them on the range pending hearing. They plead “financial hardship” as a cause for the Judge to release the horses to transport to facilities.).
The Order below:
TEMPORARY RESTRAINIG ORDER
The Injunction issued by this Court on January 4, 2013, IS HEREBY LIFTED, in accordance with the following terms:
1. Defendant may conduct the planned wild horse gather and transport at the Owyhee HMA.
2. Defendant must conduct the gather and transport in a humane fashion pursuant to 16 U.S.C. § 1333 (b)(2)(iv)(B) and 43 C.F.R. § 4700.0-5(e)-(f).
3. Defendant cannot use “hot shot”/electric prod treatment on the 14 weanlings it plans to transport.
4. Defendant cannot routinely use “hot shot”/electric prod treatment during the planned gather and transport of the adult horses. Defendant may only use such treatment as necessary to ensure the safety and security of the horses and handlers.
5. Defendant cannot conduct the gather or transport in a manner where the horses are driven through barbed wire fences.
6. Defendant must conduct the gather and transport in a manner ensuring that all foals are able to keep up with the drive, and none are left behind from the herd.
7. To the extent Defendant uses such methods, Defendant cannot conduct the gather or transport in a manner where the horses are treated with rushed and aggressive loading tactics from the trap sites into the trucks.
8. To the extent Defendant uses such methods, Defendant cannot conduct the gather or transport in a manner where the horses are rounded up from unsafe trap locations.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
DATED THIS 10th day of January
This case, “Owyhee Complex,” is still active. It addresses inhumane handling, removals that are unjustified by supporting documentation and planning, and the case now included issues of access.
As the BLM prepared to move into the third phase of capturing horses from the Owyhee Complex they intended to do a “bait trap” operation in the Snowstorm HMA and deny all access to observe. This operation was based on claims of “drought emergency.” WHE documentation countered much of BLMs claims and we created an alternative recommendation that we submitted. We also filed documents in court. The operation was cancelled/suspended.
During 2013 we had few roundups as the federal government went into “shutdown.” During the roundups that did occur the access to document the condition of horses was limited by BLM. In one instance was prohibited entirely. The “twice yearly” tours of the BLM “Broken Arrow” “short-term” facility (aka Indian Lakes, Fallon) were cancelled and no horses were viewed. (No tours have been scheduled of this facility in more than a year and a half).
However issues of shelter during temperature extremes and a lack of infectious disease protocol came under increased public scrutiny in summer 2013.
What we are seeing in documents that are creating the framework for wild horse and burro removals in 2014 (primarily “drought management plans”) is that they include the same operating procedures that created the framework for all of the incidents noted above. In addition what these “drought” documents often include is the authority to begin removals of wild horses and/or burros simply by creating a Record of Decision (ROD), notifying the public (no time limitation) and then removing animals. These documents do not ensure the media or public any access to assess animals. These documents are inadequate.
The “IM” is obviously not an enforceable policy. As BLM also controls access the ability of the public to hold the agency accountable to the intention of the Congressional mandate can be (and is) limited by the agency itself.
As we move into a year that has the potential to see compromised animals removed from the range this situation is simply not acceptable.