In-Depth: Pressure Mounts Against Pendley

(October 23, 2020) Earlier this month, AWHC joined with major U.S. conservation organizations in calling on Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to rescind illegal actions of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) implemented during the unlawful tenure of William Perry Pendley as head of the agency.

Last month, Chief Judge Morris of the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana, issued an order declaring that Mr. Pendley has served unlawfully as the Acting Director for the BLM and that any “function or duty” of the BLM Director that was performed by Mr.Pendley has “no force or effect and must be set aside.” This month, Morris ruled to set aside several BLM Montana decisions made under Pendley’s tenure.

In the letter, AWHC states that Mr. Pendley’s tenure at the BLM has been marked by a misleading focus on wild horses and burros as an “existential threat” to public lands even though these federally-protected animals are not present on 88 percent of the lands his agency manages. The result has been policies over his 14-month tenure that threaten the health and long-term viability of America’s iconic wild horse and burro herds.

While Morris said that he would not rule beyond the case filed in his court, his latest decision opens the door for new lawsuits. However, it is not as simple as just filing a new lawsuit in federal court and demanding all wild horse decisions made while Pendley was Acting Director be rescinded. 

First, unfortunately, the court's decision is almost certain to be appealed. We expect that both the underlying finding that Pendley served unlawfully as well as what decisions his unlawful tenure effects are likely to be challenged. However, this week Senator Tester (MT) and other lawmakers introduced legislation that would bar the Trump administration from seeking to overturn the ruling ousting Pendley from his role as the de facto director of the BLM. According to The Hill, Tester’s team said it would push to bring the bill to the floor during the lame-duck session after the election. So, this legislation and the possible appeal are factors to watch.

Second, even if the ruling from Montana stands, we would have to file a completely new lawsuit where we would have to relitigate the issue of the lawfulness of Pendley's tenure as BLM's Acting Director. While such a lawsuit is possible, as demonstrated by the success in Montana, at this point, it makes sense to wait for the possible appeal to work its way through the judicial system, or the legislation to pass, before we consider filing a new action. 

Third, with an upcoming presidential election, it is possible that a new administration could be in place in mere months. In short, Pendley may no longer be a threat after November 3rd. Thus, this timeframe also encourages patience as we wait to see the outcome of the election.

Finally, that doesn’t mean that there is nothing left for us to do now for our wild horses and burros. Instead of legal action right now, we can all focus on an advocacy approach. For example, you can reach out to your Representative and Senators in Congress to explain the situation to them and ask that they not appropriate any funds to BLM for use on activities proposed or backed by Mr. Pendley. 

Call the Capitol switchboard at 202-224-3121 to be directed to your offices.

Stay strong, the wild ones need us to be their voices.

Brieanah Schwartz is Policy Counsel for the American Wild Horse Campaign. Schwartz received her J.D. from the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law in Baltimore, Maryland and graduated with a concentration in Environmental Law. She is now barred in the District of Columbia and a federal lobbyist. Brieanah is responsible for advancing AWHC’s position before Congress and this administration, for producing comments that AWHC submits, and for assisting the litigation teams on all of AWHC’s active cases. A long-time lover of wild horses, she self-published a book with her photography and research on the Cumberland Island wild horses while she attended Sweet Briar College in Sweet Briar, Virginia. She currently resides in Washington, D.C. area with her horse, Eire, dogs, Lady, Drover, and Dandy, and kitten, Pippy.