Our Active FOIA Litigation: Fighting for transparency in wild horse management
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was enacted to “permit access to official information long shielded unnecessarily from public view” by creating a “right to secure such information from possibly unwilling official hands.” Department of Air Force v. Rose, 425 U.S. 352, 361 (1976).
“[D]isclosure, not secrecy, is the dominant objective of the Act.”
John Doe Agency v. John Doe Corp., 493 U.S. 146, 152 (1989).
Upon receiving a FOIA request, an agency generally has twenty working days to respond. When a requester has exhausted administrative remedies, and the agency still fails to comply with the twenty-day deadline, FOIA authorizes the requester to file suit in federal court to obtain the requested information.
AWHC has dozens of filed FOIA requests pending with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service seeking various records and information about both wild horse management programs that is not currently available to the public. However, since FOIA responses are generally delayed well beyond the twenty working days required by law, AWHC has been forced to file several lawsuits seeking to compel the release of the requested records in a timely manner.
AWHC’s active FOIA lawsuits in federal district court are listed below. Our legal team has partnered with Eubanks & Associates, PLLC, Stotter & Associates, LLC, and Sorenson Law Office to manage these cases:
Under the Trump Administration, former Secretaries of the Interior Ryan Zinke and David Bernhardt attempted to implement radical changes to the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program while hosting closed-door meetings with industry and other stakeholder interests. Among the records being sought are those that relate to closed-door meetings between the DOI/BLM and livestock industry interests, including Protect the Harvest - an industry front group that lobbied for horse slaughter and cruel sterilization surgeries on wild mares. We hope to illuminate the connections between industry interests and DOI policy, which scapegoats wild horses from environmental damage caused by livestock and seeks the mass roundup and removal of wild horses from public lands.
Since BLM created the Adoption Incentive Program (AIP), AWHC and our rescue partners have been forced to expend scarce resources investigating the fates of wild horses and burros adopted through BLM’s AIP and rescuing the animals from known kill pens across the country before they ship to slaughter. In response to the uptick in wild horses and burros arriving in these kill pens, AWHC submitted about 30 FOIA requests, including those at issue in this case, in an attempt to gather more information about the wild horses and burros who have gone through the AIP since it began in 2019. AWHC’s investigation has already revealed that numerous wild horses and burros adopted through the AIP have been subjected to severely inhumane treatment and have been sold at auctions that cater to the horse and burro slaughter industry. This case attempts to compel the release of records that will confirm even more of our rescued wild horses were originally adopted from the BLM through the AIP before arriving in a kill pen.
Under the Trump Administration, the BLM seemed determined to utilize the barbaric ovariectomy via colpotomy procedure on wild free-roaming mares. In order to uncover the behind the scenes motivations for the agency’s continued focus on implementing this procedure, AWHC filed this FOIA request seeking copies of BLM personnel’s correspondence and or contracts with Dr. Leon Pielstick, and with other veterinarians, regarding ovariectomy via colpotomy, and other sterilization procedures of wild horses, for the period of January 1, 2016, to the date of this request.
A crucial piece to ensuring the safety of wild horses and burro after they are removed is tracking where they go after they leave BLM custody. While a nearly impossible task, AWHC does regularly request BLM records for the adoptions and sales of wild horses and burros. In this case, AWHC is seeking records and information related to all adoptions executed by the BLM from 2018 to present, including information about the adopted horses, the adopters, payments made to the adopters by the BLM under the AIP, completed compliance checks (including any violations), and records of any wild horse or burro being reassigned.
Additionally, AWHC is seeking all Applications to Purchase Wild Horses and Burros and Bills of Sales for the 1,967 wild horses and burros the BLM sold to private buyers between January 1, 2019 and December 31, 2019.
AWHC is endeavoring to understand the extent of livestock grazing in Herd Management Areas in Wyoming through a series of pending and completed requests. The one at issue in this litigation is seeking records of permits, leases, grazing preferences, and other grazing authorization records for each and every grazing allotment that is partially within, or wholly within, each BLM wild horse Herd Management Area in Wyoming. AWHC appealed the BLM’s initial decision and when the agency failed to respond to our appeal, we pursued this litigation.
In another FOIA request seeking records related to livestock grazing in Herd Management Areas in Wyoming, AWHC is seeking records related to the value and influence of banking institutions in all grazing allotments that are partially within, or wholly within, each BLM wild horse Herd Management Area in Wyoming. These records include “collateral assignments” or “lienholder agreements” for all grazing permits, and all communications regarding such records between these banking institutions and the BLM. You can read the records we received here.
Two of AWHC’s FOIA lawsuits have already proven successful!
First, in 2019 the BLM asked the veterinary community what method they would use to sterilize wild mares in a nationwide Request for Information (RFI). In response, AWHC filed a FOIA request seeking information about the production of the RFI and any responses the BLM received. The records we received because of our lawsuit indicated there are “about 5,000” veterinarians in the United States who work on horses, yet only five veterinarians responded to BLM’s RFI. Of the five veterinarians who responded to BLM’s 2019 RFI, none proposed sterilizing wild mares through ovariectomy via colpotomy, demonstrating that this procedure is widely regarded as inhumane and cannot be considered socially acceptable. You can read more about the records we received here.
Second, AWHC requested all information concerning BLM’s compliance checks executed in those areas under the jurisdiction of the Wyoming State Office, after the adoption of wild horses and burros as part of the Adoption Incentive Program in 2019, pursuant to IM 2019-025. AWHC sent similar requests to each of BLM’s State Offices, but Wyoming was one of three offices that did not respond to AWHC, necessitating this lawsuit. On March 24, 2021 we received the records responsive to this request.
More of AWHC’s FOIA requests will become ripe for lawsuit in the coming months and we will continue to sue when appropriate so that information about these federal management programs can be brought to light.