Posts Tagged ‘helicopter stampedes’

Whose Home on the Range? Advocate Laura Leigh and the Battle Royale to Protect America’s Wild Horses

Friday, February 3rd, 2012









Video copyright Laura Leigh/ Wild Horse Education

 “My ‘agenda’ is that the wild horses be managed according to the law and that they’re managed humanely.   It is to look for protection for these horses within the limits of the law, and to get as much information as possible out to the public.”


By Jonathan Arkin




In the song Wild Horses, released by the Rolling Stones in 1971, Mick Jagger sings of a love gone astray and laments: “I have my freedom…but don’t have much time.” In an ironic and cruel coincidence, a piece of legislation born that very same year – and grossly misapplied since – has marked for time the very freedom of those wild horses Jagger longed to “ride some day.” 


Wild horses, the iconic symbol of the American spirit and soul, are rapidly disappearing from their lands, in a controversy/debacle of monumental proportions.  At center stage is The Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM), pitted squarely against the wild horse advocacy community.   The BLM is the government agency that administers America’s public lands –all 253 million acres of it.   Free roaming horses and burros roam the public lands in ten western states and are federally protected by the Wild Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971, which mandates that they be “managed in a thriving ecological balance with the land and as part of the natural landscape.”  Within this language lies the conflict.


The 1971 law technically designates the public land as "multi-use", which means it can be allocated for livestock grazing, for the wild horses and burros, and for other uses, including oil and gas drilling, and mineral mining.  It is the responsibility of the BLM to determine the “thriving ecological balance”, and to manage the “excess” free roaming animals in a humane manner, either through adoption, euthanasia, or other methods. 



At the heart of the controversy are the closely linked issues of land management, private interests and animal protection: The BLM, directed by the U.S. Congress to protect the wild horses via the Wild Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971, stands accused by advocacy groups of instead, decimating their numbers through management methods which are held by the advocates to be both inhumane and illegal. 


In fact, the BLM is increasingly allocating the lands on which the wild horses roam, to the oil and gas and mining industries, and also to the ranchers who pay to graze their cattle, at a fraction of what it would cost them to graze on private lands.  In the interest of evacuating the roaming areas used by the “excess” wild horses, the BLM holds bloody round ups, via helicopter stampedes  which drive the horses into government holding pens.   



Photo copyright Laura Leigh/ Wild Horse Education


Photo copyright Laura Leigh/ Wild Horse Education

Doomed horse after roundup

The American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, a coalition of 40 prominent advocacy organizations states on its website: “From over 2 million in the 1800s, America’s wild horse population has dwindled to fewer than 33,000. There are now more wild horses in government holding pens than remain in the wild, with many of the remaining herds managed at population levels that do not guarantee their long-term survival. Still, the round-ups continue.”


The public outcry has not gone unheard: A 2009 amendment to the 1971 Act, the Restore Our American Mustangs Act (ROAm), which would have approved standards of performance and accountability was proposed, and died in Committee. 


 In 2010, two major advocacy organizations, The Equine Welfare Alliance and  The Cloud Foundation, reported that 54 members of Congress sent a strong letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar “urging a halt to BLM roundups, citing concern about the trauma, injuries and deaths caused in the helicopter stampedes and raising questions about BLM’s “flawed” and “unsustainable” wild horse management policy.”


For its part, the BLM maintains through a blitz of PR articles, that the wild horse and burro population is larger than public lands can support and that its goal is to remove the excess animals from the land to areas where they can be adopted or sold to private buyers who will provide good homes.   The BLM claims that activists have mounted a campaign to mislead the public and distort the BLM’s motives and intentions regarding wild horse management on public lands. 


Strikingly, the photographic evidence in favor of the activists’ arguments belies the BLM position, and is difficult to ignore.  It shows that the horses are stampeded over miles, sometimes in 100 degree heat, to exhaustion (and often, to death) by low flying choppers, before their arrival at government holding pens.  Moreover, the BLM has set forth a management plan which includes controversial mass castration of the herds without sufficient analysis of the long term impact on their survival.


Photo copyright Laura Leigh/ Wild Horse Education


Advocates say that the BLM is firmly in the pocket of the mining and ranching interests and is in clear violation of the federal law.  They have initiated a spate of lawsuits against the BLM, which challenge the methodology of the roundups, the First Amendment rights of reporters to document the abuses, as well as the government methods for numbers control — castration management issues– all of which they claim, have been “trampled” by the special interests.



One, advocate, Laura Leigh, is devoting her life to documenting the plight of the wild horses; she has taken it upon herself to patrol the plains of Nevada, living out of her truck, in an effort to stop the clock from signaling the end of the wild horse on our prairies.  According to Leigh, she has traveled to six states and has witnessed more roundups and management areas in the last two years than any other person including government personnel.  She has a special focus on Nevada , which she now calls home.


“The bottom line is a beating heart – the symbol of American freedom is the wild horse,” Leigh said. “If we can’t protect the symbol, what good is that Act?  It’s a reflection on all the other policies! If we don’t have their best interests at heart, where do we have our (own) best interests?


For the past several years, Leigh, now a Vice President of the Wild Horse Freedom Federation, has made it her business to document the treatment of wild horses by private interests, to create a library about the work of advocates and to write her blog, Wild Horse Education, which holds an extensive photo and video gallery that details her work.  


And on January 26, 2012, she went to court as plaintiff in a landmark federal court case that, for the first time in four decades, brought the inhumane roundup treatment of horses into the courtroom, and actually scored a big win for the advocacy community.  The decision by the presiding judge left the matter “in the hands of Congress",  but he also left the door open to continue to address the issue – roundup by roundup.


Leigh is quick to point out that she is simply devoted, but not confrontational, as much as she loves the animals that take up nearly all of her time to protect. “I’m not an activist,  I’m an advocate,” she said. “I don’t break the law. I’m not aggressive. And I’m one of those hands-on learners.  In order for me to fully comprehend an issue, I (have to) live it. I’ve been essentially living on my truck on the range for a about a year now. I call it my world.”



It is no secret that domesticated wild horses dramatically influenced human development all over this planet, and Leigh is not alone in recognizing the contributions these animals have made to agriculture, travel, even warfare when necessary.


“[Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film] War Horse is bringing lots of attention to this matter,” Leigh said. They fought in World War I and World War II.   Our West would not be what it is today if it weren’t for our wild horses.  Freedom and family – that’s what we stand for as Americans. And the wild horses symbolize that.”


In fact, horses have complex social structures in the wild, which are indicative of their high level of intelligence.  There are older horses which look out for the welfare of the herd; there is a lead mare who selects the safest trails to follow and one or two stallions that stay with and protect the herd.  They care for their young, and communicate as a unit.  Each individual understands its place and its role in the herd hierarchy.



Photo copyright Laura Leigh/ Wild Horse Education

Mother with foal


 “They are wired to each other for survival,” Leigh says, of the horses’ survival instincts and their relationship with the open range. “They will fight for their freedom and fight for their family, yet they are so at peace with their surroundings. It’s so peaceful being out there with them. It’s the only place where you can finish a thought.”


Leigh may work alone on the prairie, but she is joined by prominent figures in the fight for maintaining dignity for horses, both wild and raised.


Russ Bensley, a former CBS News executive who raised horses for 18 years, attests to the familial “wiring” that Leigh says is essential to understanding the equine need for a peaceful, unmolested environment.


“They obviously do form friendships and bonds with each other, and there’s a great bonding between them and their offspring,” said Bensley, who refers to himself as a “stable hand” who chanced upon the equine world via his wife. “The horses form bonds with other horses and will be mournful if their friends disappear or die, just as they form bonds with the people who take care of them. They have emotions that are not all that different from human emotions. They fall in love. They form friendships. And, they miss each other if they are separated or if one of them disappears.”


Bensley agrees that governmental efforts to relocate them forcibly have resulted in situations that are fraught with emotional turmoil for the horses.


In California, Nevada and other states of the American West, wild horses roam free and, in the past, have been generally left alone to live and procreate – as are eagles, buffalo, and other formerly hunted animals – but there are also massive exceptions to this treatment.  


And that is precisely what Laura Leigh has been trying to bring to the public’s attention.


But first, a little background.



Wild horses, also called mustangs, were reintroduced to North America by the Spanish during their 16th Century colonization efforts, but it is debatable whether the horse had ever really disappeared from the continent entirely. It is known through taphonomic studies and fossil records that mustangs were hunted nearly to extinction by early humans in the Americas. 


But there is also a strong countervailing belief that underpins ranching and hunting interest groups as well as the BLM philosophy, that these horses are descended from domesticated stock brought by the Spanish, and that they are therefore, an invasive species, or feral, and non native.   It is this belief that is one of the weapons of choice in the hands of anti-equine interest groups that seek to remove them from their natural habitat.


“These people see the profit in pulling horses off the range,” Leigh said. “That’s where the whole feral issue gets its impetus. People see mustangs as this scruffy range pony and they’re not that at all.”


 “Any other animal with those kinds of numbers would be on the endangered species list.  We’re going to lose our wild horses, except for what we call showcase herds in a range breeding program. It’s amazing how many people don’t know.”



The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 originally sought to protect “from capture, branding, harassment, or death” those wild equines found on America’s public lands.  It is a prime example of a law with its heart in the right place, but which has been manipulated such that the net outcome no longer resembles the original intent. 


Photo copyright Laura Leigh/ Wild Horse Education

Sweat soaked horses after roundup


“The problem”, says Leigh, is that the implementation of this protective law has been flawed, and therefore, the Department of the Interior  – which is the governmental agency charged with administering it, has dulled the parameters of its enforcement.”


“The  FLPMA  (The Federal Land Policy and Management Act which governs the management of the land administered by the BLM), she says, is the more sinister threat.  “It allowed private developers to take control of the land on which the wild horses live.  The idea that "multiple use" is "fair use" does not occur and special interests get priority treatment.”


But, she adds, it’s not only about the slaughter.  It’s really about management of public lands, and the transfer of the land from public to private hands.   That, says Leigh is what is disrupting the movement and welfare of the wild herds.  After horses are removed from public land, it becomes a domestic issue and horse slaughter is then easier to commit while public eyes are turned away”.[1]



But it was, fact, the horse slaughter issue that drew Leigh to balance equine advocacy with a desire to create visual art as her grown children headed off to college. The story of how she came to advocate tirelessly for horses still breaks her heart.


“I come into this role through the horse slaughter issue,” recounted Leigh. “Many years ago, I went into a packing plant [where horses are ‘processed’ into materials after being slaughtered], to save a mustang. They refused. These people had to deliver a certain number of pounds of horse. I had to leave the mustang behind. And it haunted me. How does a horse that serves man end up in a packing plant?


Leigh could be considered the spiritual descendant of her ‘predecessor’ on the plains, a Nevada woman named Velma B. Johnston – who was better known as “Wild Horse Annie.” Johnston, until her death in 1977, also tried to bring the private roundups into the public eye, scoring a coup with legislation to make illegal the use of aircraft and motor vehicles a ‘tool’ in such roundups.


“In 1971 the Wild Horse Act was signed into law, and we’ve never had management on the range as detailed in that Act.   Now, the whole program is upside down to help out the private interests…so the horses are the first to go.”


Johnston’s own introduction to the mustangs’ plight came very similarly to Leigh’s, when Johnston witnessed a bloody roundup of mustangs headed to a packing plant for slaughter. That was in 1950.



Since that time, says Leigh, the West has been in the process of industrialization and the roundups are largely happening on public land.   But land management is supported by powerful lobbies, which horse advocates say, encourage a lack of management and oversight where convenient.


 “In 1971 the Wild Horse Act was signed into law, and we’ve never had management on the range as detailed in that Act.   Now, the whole program is upside down to help out the private interests…so the horses are the first to go. The grazing areas get smaller and smaller, because the issue turns to water, and other resources.


“Any other animal with those kinds of numbers would be on the endangered species list.  We’re going to lose our wild horses, except for what we call showcase herds in a range breeding program.  It’s amazing how many people don’t know.”



According to Laura, there isn’t a lot of hard data available that maps the movement of wild horses.  However, the data that does exist is a sobering collection of maps that show the gradual and steady evaporation of the lands once allocated to horses and their seasonal movements. These areas, say Leigh, are drying up like an arid riverbed.


 “When the Wild Horses Act was passed, there were boundary lines for herd areas,” said Leigh of the Herd Management Areas (HMAs) that were set up in concert with the legislation. “Horses were to be managed where they were originally found. But because it (the Act) didn’t take seasonal range [movement] into account, the boundary lines were inaccurate. Now it’s too hard to manage, too many new homes have been built. The BLM has been shrinking the original boundary lines – and have removed about 21 million acres which had been part of their range.


As Leigh attends one roundup alert after another, she reflects on her interactions with the men who control the new HMAs on the range – and what she is able to see and document without hassle. 


“I’ve established relationships with a number of them…some relationships are better than others,” she said. “I’m out there all the time, they’ve gotten to know me over time, and I’ve gotten to know them as well.  There’s a joke that there’s a field manager out there with whom I’ve spent so much time with that it’s …. more time than I’ve ever spent with any other man.  

I’ve also met some armed men at roadblocks preventing me from seeing what is happening to horses. They’re there to stop me from getting anything on film that might make the public angry.”



Leigh’s activities have brought on frictions with ranchers who bristle at her attempts to document the abuse and mistreatment of animals. “This,” she says, “is a similar problem to those facing reporters in autocratic societies.


 “There Is a First Amendment infringement as it pertains to wild horses,” Leigh added. “It could set precedent in any issue in which the press has to report on activities of the federal government.  It is absurd for them to place restrictions on what we are able to see.   If it starts with the way horses are loaded on the range, where will it end – freedom of the press issues?” 


“They put tarps up at the sites where they process the horses,” said Leigh, describing one of her many battles with access to the lands where mistreatment occurs. “I captured  images of that and they then shut down access.”


“I’ve also met some armed men at roadblocks preventing me from seeing what is happening to horses. They’re there to stop me from getting anything on film that might make the public angry.”


Last year the The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a First Amendment amicus brief on behalf of Leigh’s organizations, Wild Horse Education and Wild Horse Freedom Federation.  The suit urged a federal court of appeals to order a federal trial court to reconsider a decision made regarding the First Amendment rights of reporters to photograph the roundup of horses on federal land.  Other reporters have also signed onto the pending lawsuit.


Indeed, television news anchors Dan Rather and Wolf Blitzer are on the steering committee of the Reporters Committee for the Free Press – amicus. Their work can be found here: (


“They put tarps up at the sites where they process the horses,” said Leigh, describing one of her many battles with access to the lands where mistreatment occurs. “I captured images of that and they then shut down access.”


Leigh claims that the Bureau of Land Management is also guilty of discriminatory access – a practice of allowing some, but not all, members of the press to view controversial activities (in this case, roundups with the alleged use of electric prods and other tools that she says traumatize the horses). This, she says, is a violation of the First Amendment and her access to several areas, she adds, has been limited since she took pictures of one such roundup.



Another important court case for Leigh occurred on January 26 in Reno, Nevada –and a federal case to boot.


Leigh with her legal team


“Although the act to protect wild horses was passed 40 years ago, and the main issue was humane management, there’s no protocol for what that treatment is,” Leigh said of her reason for pursuing legal action in Nevada.


In her first action, Leigh was granted a Temporary Restraining Order upon a BLM pilot after she witnessed the pilot hitting a horse with the skids of the chopper.  Her Complaint initiated an investigation within BLM, which admitted to inappropriate conduct.


Her discussion of the Judge's decision and her big win for the horses is documented in the video clip below.  Football fans will like this, especially.


Video copyright Laura Leigh/ Wild Horse Education


In a subsequent action, Leigh attempted to broaden the BLM program scope to force a protocol for humane care. 


“The BLM released a record of misconduct (on the roundup methods). They’ve made a lot of noise in the press about making changes and improvements, but there’s still no protocol  or system of reprimand for violations of humane treatment.   So, nothing’s changed on the ground. Roundup protocol change has not changed one iota.”



It would be remiss not to mention that there have been government attempts to humanely control the numbers of mustangs – through domestication and adoption, chemical contraception, and competitive mustang taming procedures – but these methods have had mixed results.  The main problem, say some horse professionals, is in how nature’s delicate balance gets disrupted.


“We have no data on this, says Leigh.  None.  Right now you’ll see births occurring out of season, and that is a consequence of chemical birth control. So you have foals born in the middle of January, in the cold, and their chances of survival are slim.”


"….mainstream media needs to know that this is more than the ‘cowboy’ issue. And we have not been able to break that wall. The people who are on the other side of the issue have no other horse in the race"


 “I think it’s beneficial to control the size of the herd,” said Bensley, adding a warning that spaying and neutering on a large scale might invite conditions bordering on the inhumane. “Contraception sounds like a useful idea, but I don’t know how it could be practically done. Assuming there was a useful contraceptive, how would it be administered? I believe the government article [linked below] ( mentions injection. How do you round up huge numbers of wild horses and inject them? That seems unlikely. If there was some way of spraying their habitat with a chemical that was otherwise benign that might be an option, but I question whether such a chemical exists.”


Another option for population control – a castration of 200 stallions in Eastern Nevada, has unleashed a huge response from the advocacy community, which, claiming it is a scientifically untested and permanent solution, filed a lawsuit the block the plan.  To date, the BLM has agreed to postpone the plan pending a court ruling on the matter.


As to Sanctuaries, Leigh states, “Sanctuary is a great option for animals that have been removed from public land and have no place to go,” she said.  But sanctuaries don’t address the issue of management on the range. ….this is addressing the symptoms without looking at the core problem.


Janice Eddy-Languein, who works as a stable manager in Chatsworth, California, cautions against confining herds to small areas and forcing them to stay in small areas. She describes how a “bunch of hillbilly horses” can easily fall to rampant inbreeding and how that affects the herd’s overall health and potency.


“With small herds, some of the horses have things wrong with them,” she said. “If they inbreed, they become funky, sometimes crippled. If there’s no feed, they’ll die. (Or) they can overpopulate an area, then if there’s no feed to support the numbers of horses there, what’s going to happen? Then it’s survival of the fittest.”



Indeed, when the plains buffaloes were nearly eradicated in the middle of the 1800s due to excessive hunting, private people brought some of them in and took care of them. Languein suggests that a similar program be set up to protect the mustang.


 “They’re very hardy horses,” Eddy-Languein said. “They’ve lived out on the range. They know how to survive. But get some kind of funding to get out there and feed them during the winter, maybe someone who [gets paid to] monitor them (so they won’t bother the cattle feed). There are things the people want to do for them, but I don’t know where the funds would come from. Maybe like ‘Adopt a highway.’ Adopt a mustang? Adopt a mustang herd?”



Languein added that adoption roundups have proven to be more advantageous to the ranchers than the horses  “They do the wild horse roundups, even bringing them into Pierce College [in the San Fernando Valley], where you can adopt the mustangs. This is part of a program too to find homes for the mustangs, which are freeze branded to identify them.”


Languein objects to this branding – even as some advocates, including Leigh, say it helps them “track” wild horses under observation – but again, the lack of clear protocol in this program allows some to dispose of the horses in deplorable ways.


“At one point the mustangs still belonged to the government, you had to hang onto them for a year, and they could not be sold or killed,” explained Languein.   (After that, you could) “even send them to those meatpacking warehouses and glue factories.”



Leigh says with some regret that because her work reaches a limited audience with a specialized interest, that public donations have not been forthcoming.


“Money doesn’t flow into this, at least not as often as you would think,” she said. “The average donation that comes into Wild Horses Education is about 20 bucks. I remember one donation for $14. A girl from Michigan sent four dollars from cupcake sales and her mom kicked in the 10 dollars.


Recently Leigh joined forces with the Wild Horse Freedom Federation, in the hopes of setting up a research library that will be the information resource she envisioned from the beginning.  But she continues to work solo as well.


 “Working alone has its challenges,” Leigh said, “but it is really neat to represent the public and to have no other agenda.


My ‘agenda’ is that the wild horses be managed according to the law and that they’re managed humanely.   It is to look for protection for these horses within the limits of the law, and to get as much information as possible out to the public.  The little girl in Michigan [who sent in her $14] has a voice and she believes her voice matters, that I am keeping an eye on the horses for her. 


Wild Horse Education is my data and documentation machine. Donations keep me in the field.  Wild Horse Freedom Federation pays the attorneys on my cases and other lawsuits pending.  All donations of any size, are welcomed.



With so many influential people in the country attuned to the plight of these intelligent, sensitive creatures, the issues are clear.   But what remains to be answered is, how does someone not yet involved get involved?


“There are so many things that could be done,” Leigh said. “Just google  ‘wild horses,’ ‘Freedom Federation.’ The primary thing we can do is to get the issue into the public conversation. Many people don’t know there are wild horses out there. They can write to their representatives; (elected officials) want to hear from their constituencies.   If the only person who communications with them is a private profiteer then that’s how the politician will vote.



But Leigh returns to the issue of the original legislation – the 1971 Act  - and the values  that so divide pro-horse advocates and the developers who are either opposed to or ambivalent to their plight.


“The bottom line is a beating heart – the symbol of American freedom is the wild horse,” Leigh said. “If we can’t protect the symbol, what good is that Act?  It’s a reflection on all the other policies! If we don’t have their best interests at heart, where do we have our (own) best interests? It begs some pretty big questions.”


And as she prepares for her next battle – another photographic documentation attempt at an undisclosed location in the wilds of Nevada, Leigh reflects on that conflict of interest: the conflict of interest that tragically has the magnificent beast of burden, warfare and friendship caught in its crosshairs.


“Politically, the division – in my opinion – is based on resources,” Leigh said. “The BLM are people who have a vested interest in the profit drive from the ranchers, miners, hunting lobbies.


But mainstream media needs to know that this is more than the ‘cowboy’ issue. And we have not been able to break that wall. The people who are on the other side of the issue have no other horse in the race.”


She pauses and adds, “No pun intended.”






Jonathan Arkin is a graduate of the USC Annenberg School  for Communication and Journalism, and is currently a  writer living in southern California.


[1] The policy detailed in the FLPMA gave the BLM wide latitude to determine the use of the land.  Specifically, it directed the BLM to manage the land under principles of “multiple use” and “sustained yield”, and to regulate the use of land (with conditions) in such a manner as “to permit individuals to utilize public lands for habitation, cultivation, and the development of small trade or manufacturing concerns”.  It defined “multiple use” as “ the management of the public lands and their various resource values so that they are utilized in the combination that will best meet the present and future needs of the American people”.  

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