AWHC's FOIA Fight for Transparency and Accountability in the TIP Program

By Amelia Perrin, investigations manager 

Here at the American Wild Horse Campaign, we fight for transparency and accountability within the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Wild Horse and Burro Program. 

One way we do this is through our investigations department. The goal of AWHC’s investigation program is to expose abuse, fraud, and waste within federal programs affecting wild horses and to promote accountability, humane treatment, and sustainable stewardship of wild horses and burros by agencies and entities charged with their management. 

One of our most known investigations is into the BLM’s Adoption Incentive Program (AIP). Through this investigation, we’ve garnered national news coverage, such as an exposé on the front page of the New York Times. We exposed the AIP as a pipeline to slaughter for hundreds if not thousands of wild horses and burros. But we also investigate other aspects of the BLM’s wild horse and burro program Back in 2021, AWHC received a tip that Trainer Incentive Program (TIP) trainers were not only selling their BLM wild horses to slaughter but also that one of the trainers had malnourished animals in his care, raising severe concerns about the welfare of the animals placed with this trainer.

An underweight horse in the TIP trainer’s care. Photos were provided to BLM by AWHC

In fact, a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Request filed by AWHC, unrelated to the TIP investigation stated that this trainer “reported animal death on 10-3-2021. Requested images revealed yearling in BCS 2.0-2.5. Images showed animal in muddy pen and coated in mud. Verified animal id via freezemark and signalment. Trainer did not report animal as ill or losing weight. Requested vet report. Followed up with a compliance inspection of 8 animals located at facility and a 9th animal adopted by spouse. Inspection warrants compliance hold due to inadequate facility and spouse's animal in same facility is BCS 2.5. This animal is deceased.”

The records stated that the sudden death of this yearling was following “prolonged weight loss.” 

One month after the BLM was aware of this heinous and preventable death, but before AWHC discovered the death, AWHC compiled the evidence we had gathered into a report we sent to both the BLM and the Mustang Heritage Foundation alerting them to this violation and the abuse of BLM animals. The response we received was lacking. The MHF responded, “We have reviewed this issue and found that none of the rules and regulations governing TIP have been violated at this time.” Paul McGuire of the BLM told AWHC to submit a FOIA for inspection records related to the improvement of the trainer’s facility. 

McGuire’s response prompted us to file a FOIA to investigate and uncover what, if any, investigation and or corrective action the BLM and the MHF took in regard to our complaint. So we filed a FOIA for “an electronic copy of “Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”) communication records, including attachments, from staff including but not limited to Paul McGuire, with Mustang Heritage Foundation, including but not limited to its representatives David Barrientes and Cary Scholtes, regarding Tim Leonard and John Shetler.” 

As the months passed, AWHC received no communications from the BLM about this request and we did not receive any records. So, we were forced to file a lawsuit in federal court demanding the records. Once in litigation, the BLM released 32 pages of communications between BLM and MHF, 21 of these pages were the report AWHC wrote and sent to the BLM. In fact, despite the seriousness of the allegations, the records showed a mere three internal emails from BLM regarding this matter. 

The answer to the question, what did the BLM do with the information we provided them, was not answered by the content in the records, but rather by the lack of discussion about AWHC’s report. These records showed us that the agency implemented little to no investigation into the incident and yet again, washed its hands of the very animals it is supposed to protect. But unfortunately, that just seems par for the course for the agency. 

We continue to file FOIAs to understand the BLM’s action, or lack thereof, in relation to protecting wild horses and burros from slaughter and we continue to advocate for sensible, humane solutions that will conserve these beloved animals on the Western public lands.


Read the records + the report here