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BCM’s Newest Attorney Brings Some Of The Wild West (And Horses) To The Firm

BCM Environmental and Land Law Aug. 28, 2023

Wild Horses are an iconic part of the American West. Today, tens of thousands of free-roaming horses (as well as burros) populate public lands in eleven western states: California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Nevada. The animals live in some of the most unforgiving places, usually on desert grasslands managed by the United States Bureau of Land Management.

Wild horses are protected under the 1972 Free-Roaming, Wild Horse and Burro Act. More recently, however, the Bureau of Land Management began pushing a false narrative of exploding wild horse populations that allegedly threaten America’s public lands. Although baseless in most cases, BLM’s cries resonate with some elected officials and the public. In recent years, the result has been the removal of tens of thousands of wild horses from public lands. These horses a rounded up by using helicopters to force them into corral-like traps. If the horses are not wounded or killed, they end up in BLM-ran stables, where they live like prisoners for the remainder of their lives.

BCM attorney Mike Harris, who joined the firm in June of this year, has a long history of litigating cases in federal court to protect wild horses. He has brought dozens of lawsuits challenging removals since 2016. His efforts have helped keep wild horses free in Oregon, Montana, Arizona, and Nevada.

Since moving to Vermont, Mike has teamed up with the Wild Horse Fire Brigade (WHFB), a non-profit group seeking to promote the ecological benefits of keeping wild horses on public lands.

The organization helps save native wild horses by rewilding them from government holding facilities or relocating them away from areas of contention with livestock production and humanely placing them as family units into carefully selected designated wilderness areas that are economically and ecologically appropriate. Wild horses can resume their evolutionary roles as keystone herbivores that naturally protect forests, wildlife, watersheds, and wilderness ecosystems in such wilderness areas. Wilderness areas benefit through the symbiotic grazing by wild horses that naturally maintain wildfire fuels (grass and brush) to nominal levels, thereby reducing the frequency, size, and intensity of wildfire, as well as deadly toxic wildfire smoke harming human health and accelerating climate change.

Earlier this year, WHFB, Attorney Harris, and Vermont Law and Graduate School’s Environmental Advocacy Clinic teamed up to file suit on behalf of WHFB, achieving an agreement with the Bureau of Land Management that will halt the agency’s unlawful roundup of wild horses from private lands in and around the Pokegama Wild Horse Management Area in Southern Oregon.

“I was excited to partner with WHFB to protect the Pokegama wild horses. We were able to stop the illegal removal of horses by BLM. Wild horses are a vital component of managing grassland and forest ecosystems in the area. Their grazing helps reduce and maintain grass and shrubs, effectively mitigating major wildfire hazards—something badly needed in the fire-prone West,” said Harris.