You learn many interesting things traveling on public lands following the wild horse issue in the American West.
You learn that after standing in sub-zero temperatures, attempting to document winter roundups, that returning to the relative warmth of your parked vehicle can make your glasses crack. You learn that chemical toe warmers are good as wrist, neck and “slip into your coveralls attach to your underwear” warmers as well. You learn that rattlesnakes don’t always rattle.
You learn the maneuvers the federal government will attempt to hide their actions when “managing” America’s wild herds: Maneuvers that range from lying about facility contracts to a roadblock on a remote dirt road operated by armed men who stop three woman from seeing the wild horses being captured.
On June 19, 1971 both houses of Congress passed the Wild Free Roaming Horse and Burro, act without a single dissenting vote. That act read:
? 1331. Congressional findings and declaration of policy
Congress finds and declares that wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; that they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people; and that these horses and burros are fast disappearing from the American scene. It is the policy of Congress that wild free-roaming horses and burros shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death; and to accomplish this they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands.
Somehow though, somewhere in the implementation of the Act, something went terribly wrong. In its findings, Congress declared, “These horses and burros are fast disappearing from the American scene.”
However the agency tasked by Congress to protect and preserve these disappearing horses became transformed into a machine that removes more horses from public lands than any other force or man or nature in modern history.
As a journalist and photojournalist, this issue has become my life’s passion. Yet the pursuit of the story has now taken me to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to protect my First Amendment right to document and report the actions of our government in this issue of great public interest.
If there is nothing to hide, why go through such lengths to hide what is being done? This is hardly a matter of national security, after all.
This courtroom saga began last summer, when the BLM announced a broad public land closure prior to a roundup in the heat of the July desert. The bureau tasked with humane management of our wild herds was preparing to execute this operation during actual foaling season in the area. My attorney, Gordon Cowan of Reno Nevada, filed suit in the Federal District Court seeking to block the action.
The issue of foaling season was never heard, because the BLM presented a document, dated the day of court hearing, declaring an unprecedented water emergency. They made a claim in the courtroom that 75% of the horses would be dead in three days if the Court granted the relief sought. The court dismissed the motion based on the claimed emergency, so the issue of newborn foals being run in the desert heat unheard.
Yet the Federal District Court Judge, the Honorable Larry Hicks, did order the land closure lifted as a prior restraint to the First Amendment.
Traveling overnight to reach the range before the chopper flew at dawn was exhausting. My head throbbed, as I had suffered a concussion from being rear-ended by a drunk driver just a week earlier.
We arrived in the pre-dawn hours to begin a cat-and-mouse game of conversations that claimed compliance with court orders, yet threatened arrest. The district manger for the BLM, Ken Miller, even went so far as to say there “was nothing to see,” after an emergency was declared that was so extreme it topped anything in the district’s history.
When we got near the trap site we were met with a roadblock staffed by armed men. We were told if we went further we were trespassing and subject to arrest. There were no signs and the BLM map did not have private roads listed. We retreated.
Later I discovered the road never actually turns private. The boundary to private property was a considerable distance up the public road. Not a single horse was viewed by members of the public during capture or at the temporary pens.
These “access games” are compounded, convoluted and repeated. Discriminatory access was given to members of the press whom BLM felt worthy, even as I was barred access to the same site. Not only was I denied access, but I was ordered to move away from public land when I attempted to photograph a truckload of horses on a public road.
Another suit was filed that addressed the obscenity of the department-wide lack of transparency. Roundups occur without public notice by the Fish and Wildlife service (also under Department of Interior). A facility the BLM closed to the public (with the BLM claiming it was never intended to be open to the public, even as internal emails reveal the closure was because of damage done to the agency’s reputation by the reports that were published after such visits), actually has a rule that allows weekly tours until 2015. Violations of the act, ranging from the most basic management of the range, to actions during capture, holding or during sale, are kept hidden from public view.
Now the court has held off on making a decision on a request for emergency injunctive relief until more than six months after the motion was filed. The court cited “mootness,” because the roundup was over.
“Public debate is vital to any Democratic process,” states attorney for plaintiff Cowan. “If the information utilized in debate is subjected to content control the debate is moot, not the argument.”
Amicus briefs have been filed by the Reporters Committee for a Free Press and by the National Press Photographers Association in this landmark case about the public’s right to know.
July 1 roundups are about to begin again during another foaling season. Pregnant mares and newborn foals will once again be run in the desert heat by the agency tasked by Congress to manage them as an integral part of the landscape.
Will the public actually have meaningful access to witness the hands-on management of a National Treasure by our government? We will see very soon.
To learn more about the lawsuit and read pertinent documentation go to: WildHorseEducation.org
LAURA LEIGH is a journalist/photojournalist focusing on issues of the American West. She also serves as wild horse expert for several equine welfare agencies. Laura can be reached through WildHorseEducation@gmail.com
She wrote this article for ThisCantBeHappening!