Consent Decrees and Consequences

I have spent the last day trying to figure out exactly how I want to word this blog entry. I am a wild Mustang advocate and an equine attorney, and those two parts of me are in conflict right now. I have read the 170-page PDF the BLM has issued concerning the proposed gather and removal of all horses from 3 HMAs in southwestern Wyoming. I was hoping to find a novel argument that would make the BLM decide not to pick that alternative among four that they mention in the report.

But the job of an attorney is to share the truth not to make people happy. The truth is that while this gather might be delayed for reasons I’ll discuss in a minute, the BLM will invariably remove these Mustangs and in fact, has the legal power to do so. That power was given to it in a Consent Decree (a court order) issued way back in 2011. The alternative the BLM advocates – the removal of those Mustangs and literally making it so that wild Mustangs no longer live there – is expressly listed in that court order. The BLM is following the law. I wish I didn’t have to say that, but I do. There are still ways to help the Mustangs so read on after you take a minute to let that sink in.

How did we get here?

In a nutshell, the report sets out four alternatives concerning the wild Mustangs in the checkboard area of southwestern Wyoming. The Rock Springs Grazing Association (“RSGA”), which owns most of the private land in that area, has historically allowed a small number of Mustangs to graze on the private land. Their land and the BLM land is literally interspersed like a checkerboard every square mile, which is 640 acres. The RSGA revoked that permission in 2010, and sued the BLM in 2011 to remove the Mustangs. In 2013, a Consent Decree was agreed to by the RSGA and the BLM. It was opposed by the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign and other wild Mustang advocacy groups who had intervened in the case but the Court granted it over their opposition. That Consent Decree literally lists the exact alternative that the BLM is advocating for at this time.

What can you do, short term?

You can write a comment to the BLM and tell them you want alternative A, which leaves things the way they are right now, with the Mustangs on the range. If you do, you should know a few important things:

  1. Do not send in a form letter. Your comment must be substantive. The BLM states on page 12, “During the public scoping period, 15,013 individuals, agencies, and groups submitted comments on wild horse management. The bulk of these commenters submitted identical form letters. The BLM identified 734 substantive comments.” In the table on that page showing the categories of comments, the BLM notes that “*Identical comments in form letters were counted as a single comment.” That means all those letters that were form letters with identical comments about grazing were boiled down to, according to the table, only 68 comments.
  1. Do not mention grazing. I know that Mustang advocates believe there are too many cattle and sheep grazing the range and that the Mustangs are being removed so more can be put there. However, making that comment to this report will not matter. On page 13, Table 1-2 shows “Issues not carried forward for detailed analysis.” The very first issue is “BLM has illegally elevated the interests of livestock grazing over the interests of wild horses, in violation of FLPMA’s multiple-use mandate and the Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act.” The BLM dismisses that argument because “[T]he assertion is not an issue for land use planning analysis but is instead a legal conclusion.” The BLM further states that “[T]o the extent the comment refers to the Consent Decree, that settlement is consistent with applicable law,” and “[M]oreover, the planning criteria for this planning effort (Section 1.4) provide for compliancewith both FLPMA and the WFRHBA as well as other applicable law.” By citing these laws, the BLM is stating that it believes grazing is a legal issue already settled by law and so it won’t consider it any further.

What should you say if you do comment?  

Well, the BLM acknowledges on page 10 that “[T]he Consent Decree requires that BLM consider these actions, but does not require that the BLM implement any specific action. The BLM has met the requirements of the Consent Decree by considering each of these actions as elements of various alternatives in this EIS, though no single alternative considers all of them together.” The BLM is under no obligation to actually do any kind of removal right now. It has considered the options and that is all that is required by the Consent Decree. It is, therefore, acting in accordance with the law, and the BLM could choose to do nothing.

The BLM could choose to leave the Mustangs on the range (Alternative A) because we are in an extraordinary time that it did not foresee or address in January 2020 when it wrote this report. This country is now in the throes of the COVID19 pandemic. This is not the time to be spending money gathering wild Mustangs when there is no emergency reason to do so. For example, the Mustangs in that area are not in danger of starving or dying of thirst. Having gathers increases the likelihood of exposure of people to COVID19 who might not otherwise have that exposure. We are seeing non-essential businesses being closed and people being cautioned to remain socially distanced, sometimes even being ordered to stay at home, so that we can flatten the curve of this dangerous virus. Gathering these Mustangs is not essential. The BLM created the report and considered the alternatives as required under the Consent Decree. Therefore, it should defer any gather until at least 2021, when more will be known about the virus and hopefully, the curve will have flattened or a vaccine may even be available.

The Court continues to maintain jurisdiction over this matter, as stated in the Consent Decree, so an emergency motion might be able to make this argument about extenuating circumstances, depending on the Court’s schedule during the pandemic. But the BLM can take this action without the necessity of anyone filing a lawsuit to stop the roundup. This is a rare time when the BLM, RSGA, and wild Mustang advocates can actually come together and agree on something that serves the entire country. We should all agree about what is most important now, and the BLM should hold off on these roundups in light of this unique point in history. We can all revisit the issue next year, at a time that is hopefully not as fraught with uncertainty and danger.

Because I know I will be asked, yes, you may discuss this COVID19 argument in your comment to the BLM. But do not send a form letter or quote me directly. If this is what you truly believe, then speak from your heart. If we don’t do that now, when will we?

Where do we go from here?

AnnieI think that, in reality, we, Mustang advocates, need to realize that we need to put our energy, minds, hearts, and money together to find a viable solution for these Mustangs. Even if they stay on the range for now, the Consent Decree clearly shows that one day they will be removed. I know, I hear you. “But, Jo, they might not be gathered.” Yes, that’s true. The Consent Decree does not expressly require it. However, there comes a time when, as painful as it is, we have to look at what is going on and find a better solution. We owe it to the Mustangs. If we know they are going to be gathered, what can we do now to find them places to live, whether that is at established and new sanctuaries, adoptive homes, or other avenues that we come up with when we put our energy there.

Based on what I have learned by reading this document and what I understand as an attorney, I think that a good course of action is to submit a comment as outlined above and then start thinking of ways to help those Mustangs who will need a place to live. Maybe that’s one blessing from this pandemic. We have the time and the ability, thanks to the Internet, to find ways to help that we might not have had before. It won’t be easy. But we’re never promised that it will be. I know that it is an incredible blessing to simply be able to help the Mustangs any way I can and to be in their presence. They are truly special.

I wish I had better news, I really do. But for the Mustangs, for those relatives of my beloved Annie (the white mare pictured above), who is from Salt Wells, I vow to work on solutions so these magnificent horses can live in a way that allows them to remain true to themselves, even if they can’t remain on the range.

This blog post is for educational purposes only.  It does not create an attorney-client relationship.  Seek an attorney’s advice for your specific situation. 

COVID19 Legal Issues for the Horse Community

Click HERE for the free e-book.

Are you concerned about the legal issues surrounding COVID19 and your horse business or personal horses? I have written an e-book entitled “Horse People, Don’t Panic: COVID19 Legal Issues for the Horse Community.” It’s a free PDF download, and you are encouraged to share it in its entirety and let others know they can download it here.

You will learn about legal issues concerning liability, horse care if you get sick, equine estate planning, and contracts during these difficult times. This is an educational service of Windhorse Legal, PLLC, and does not constitute legal advice. It is my hope that this e-book can give you some information that helps you make informed decisions and helps you discuss these issues with an equine attorney in your state.

Feel free to contact me if you need legal services I can provide. Stay safe, stay healthy, stay compassionate.

Horse Trusts

As the COVID19 pandemic spreads, I have seen people on social media ask how they can make sure their horse is taken care of in case they are unable to do so. We are facing a reality many of us have never wanted to actually face. But here we are. As someone works with fearful riders, I know that if we can face what we are afraid of, we can handle what most concerns us.

Many people say they have talked to a friend or they have written some informal agreement. For example, I know of a nurse who asked a good friend to take care of her horse is anything happens to her. There is a legal document that allows you to plan for your horse’s future in the event you are incapacitated or die. That document is called an horse trust, and you can have one for every animal in your family, not just your horse. Currently, every state and the District of Columbia had some form of legislation that allows for animal trusts. While an animal trust is a stand-alone document so it doesn’t need to be included in your estate plan, it is a good idea to let your estate planning attorney know that you have or want one.

Horses as Property Under the Law

Under the current law in every state, horses are considered property. This means someone cannot legally step in and take care of your horse if anything happens to you because they do not own your horse. For example, if you are in a coma and your riding buddy decides to move your horse to a less expensive boarding barn during that time so she can take over board payments for you, she could be charged with theft, no matter how good her intentions. She also could not access your checking account to make the regular monthly board payments needed to keep your horse where it’s currently boarded. She would literally be helpless to intervene if the barn owner decided he had to file legal papers to seize your horse and then sell it to pay for unpaid boarding costs if several months went by while you were incapacitated and unable to take care of things. We all would hope that a boarding barn owner would understand but sometimes that isn’t the case.

Horse Trusts

The way around this problem is to create a horse trust. The trust becomes active if you are incapacitated or when you die. Once you are no longer incapacitated, it is no longer active and returns control to you to handle matters concerning your horse.

A horse trust gives you the ability to provide funds for your horse’s care and to include specific instructions concerning that care. When you set up the trust, you set aside enough money in it to take care of your horse in the manner you prefer. How much money should you put into the trust? It depends on how long you want it to last. Write down a monthly budget that shows how much it costs to take care of your horse. Then decide how many months you want to provide care. For example, you may want to provide care for six months and then have a provision that if you have not regained capacity by then, you want your horse sold to someone or given to a specific person. If you want your horse taken care of after your death, you could put in enough money to care for him for several years. Make sure that the amount is reasonable, though. While horse trusts are generally not challenged in court, an argument could be made to reduce the amount you have left for care if one of your relatives or someone you left an inheritance to claim that the amount to care for your horse was excessive. Keep in mind that you can add money to the trust. So start with what you can afford and add more if that works best for your budget.

A horse trust also allows you to name a trustee, which is the person who will take care of your horse if something happens to you. You can be as specific or general as you want concerning that care. You can leave it up to the trustee, or you can put in specific provisions you want the trustee to follow. For instance, you can include directions concerning where your horse is stabled, how she should be fed, and additional instructions about the farrier and vet visits. You can even stipulate specific things such as how you want your horse to be blanketed and special treats she should get fed. It’s always a good idea to talk to the person you want to name as trustee before you set up the trust, to make sure she can take on that responsibility and is comfortable following your directions for your horse’s care. Depending on your state, there may be other people included in the trust, such as a vet who makes sure the horse is being taken care of properly.

attorney lawyer massachusetts online affordable convenient massachsuettsUse equine law as a tool to help you. When you decide you’re ready to create a horse trust, contact an equine or animal lawyer in your state so you can be sure the state’s legal requirements for the trust are met. If you are a Massachusetts resident, please feel free to contact me to discuss one. During the COVID19 epidemic, I am providing free horse trusts if you need me to draft or update an estate plan for you and at a discounted fee if you just need the trust. If you don’t live in Massachusetts, I may be able to refer to an attorney in your jurisdiction. Be sure to revisit the trust every year to make sure the funds you’ve set aside are still adequate and to make sure you don’t want to change any of the instructions for your horse’s care. Then enjoy the peace of mind knowing your horse will be taken care of if anything unexpected ever happens to you.

Stay safe, stay healthy, stay compassionate.

This blog post is for educational purposes only.  It does not create an attorney-client relationship.  Seek an attorney’s advice for your specific situation. 

 

Cybercriminals and new scams

As an equine horse professional and business owner in the digital age, you have to be careful of scams that happen in your business dealings online. For example, we all know to be careful when buying a horse in person. Is the horse lame? Is the seller being honest about the horse’s training? But you need to also consider email scams when doing business. The latest email scam is one that could easily hit the horse world and hit it hard.

According to a recent NPR story, cybercriminals are engaging in new email scams. These scams involve someone hacking into an email conversation. They monitor the conversations and then wait for an opportunity. When they see one, they pretend to be a person involved in the conversation. The opportunity usually involves a monetary transaction. The scammer provides information concerning where to send the money, and before the person knows it, they have paid the scammer instead of the legitimate party

Here is how the scam would work in the horse world. You find a horse advertised online that you buy for yourself or a client. You and the seller wind up negotiating the sale of the horse via email. Unbeknownst to you, the cybercriminal hacks into your email conversation. He or she waits until you are about to send the money and then pretends to be the seller. The directions you get for the payment are coming from the cybercriminal, not the seller. You send the money, thinking the seller is all set. When you check with the seller to confirm receipt of the money, you see that the money has gone to the cybercriminal and is probably out of the country and irretrievable.

The best way to avoid such a scam is to call the seller to discuss payment and to get payment instructions. Any conversation that might lead to a scammer getting confidential information or involving bank information should be conducted by telephone. Having actual discussions can lead to a greater level of security for your business transactions.

 

 

Equine Law Explained

When I tell people I am an equine attorney, a lot of people think I represent horses in legal actions. That’s not quite how it works, although I hope that horses benefit from the work I do with humans. An explanation of equine law might help explain the wide breadth of this area of law and what I can do for you.

Equine law focuses more on the community it serves rather than a specific area of law. As an equine attorney, I work with people who have horses in their lives. My clients can run the gamut from a person who has a horse in the backyard as a companion animal to someone who competes at the national and international levels. I work with individuals and companies, both for profit and non-profit, who are involved in the horse industry. These people have different legal needs depending on their role in the horse world. Some of the people who require equine legal services include horse trainers, riding instructors, boarding barn owners, clinicians, breeders, horse sellers, professional riders, horse purchasers, equine vets, horse chiropractors, and horse massage therapists.

In order to meet the various needs of the horse community, equine law encompasses several areas of law. Business law applies to many horse-related activities, especially when dealing with contracts. The horse industry has historically conducted business “on a handshake,” but that leads to many problems. Contracts are a way for all parties involved to make sure everyone has the same understanding concerning the transaction. Some of the contracts necessary to the horse community are boarding contracts, sales contracts, breeding contracts, and liability releases. Business law also applies if a person wants to create a company or a nonprofit. Many horse people are great with horses, but not with the business side of being a horse professional. Hiring an equine attorney allows you to feel confident that you have picked the right business structure and that your business has been set up properly. Because of my experience as a horse professional, I also provide consulting services for equine business owners.

Another very important area for equine business owners is trademark law. If you want to protect your brand, and by that I mean your business identification not your horse brand, then you should register your name, logo, slogan, or something similar that lets people recognize your business. Registering a trademark can be tricky because it’s not an automatic approval process. I provide a search and analysis for horse businesses as well as registration services. If you tried to get your mark, and the United State Patent and Trademark Office denied your registration, I also respond to Office Actions after discussing the issues with you to see if there is a chance we can get you your mark.

A lot of horse people are writing books and creating DVDs. In addition, equine photography is a growing field in the horse industry. These creative horse people need to protect their work with copyright registration. It’s true that you own the copyright as soon as you create a work. However, you can only enforce those rights in court if you have an approved registration of your work with the US Copyright Office.

Estate planning is an important legal area to include when thinking about equine law. In Massachusetts, an individual can have a horse trust, which ensures that a horse or horses are taken care of if the owner is incapacitated or dies. You may think your will is all you need in those situations, but a will has no effect if you are incapacitated, and it must go through probate before it can take effect when you die. Money and other assets are not available until the will is probated, which can take several months or even years. A horse trust gives you peace of mind that your horse is taken care of as soon as you are incapacitated or during the time your will is probated. In addition, Massachusetts has an estate tax unlike most other states. If you own horse property, you may hit the $1 million amount that triggers the tax. I have solutions for you to save you on estate taxes so that more money can go to your beneficiaries.

There are only about 100 attorneys in the country who practice equine law.  To be a good equine attorney, the person should obviously be a good attorney but she should also have a solid working understanding of the horse industry.  The more experience an equine attorney has around horses, the better she will be able understand the many scenarios that can happen and she will be able to craft solutions to avoid problems or to handle them if they arise.

Joanne L. Belasco, Esq.I practice preventive equine law, which means that I work with clients to avoid problems that may lead to litigation.  When you talk to me about your legal concerns, I understand your problems because of my experience as a horse professional and personal horsewoman.  An attorney without knowledge of horses and the horse industry is not able to understand basic terms and broader situations that we, as horse people, do. You don’t have to spend time explaining basic concepts to me, such as your horse colicking, because I know the term and have gone through the experience myself with my horses.

Contact me today, and we’ll set up a time to see how I can help with your equine legal needs.