By Scott Smith, Communications Director
[Editor’s note: National Geographic did not respond to Friends of Animals’ request seeking factual corrections or an explanation about its reporting methods regarding the July 29 article cited below. In addition to @natgeo branding wild horse advocates “emotional” on its social media platforms, on August 5, Rachael Bale, Nat Geo Animals Executive Editor, sent e-newsletter subscribers this baffling “defense” of the writer’s reporting and her unquestioned acceptance of the BLM’s discredited wild horse policies and unbridled support of the livestock ranching, roundup and drugging lobbies.
Under the headline ” WHY ARE WE ROUNDING UP WILD HORSES? : Bale writes, “Hold onto your hats, because today, we’re talking about wild horses.
“Or are they feral horses? It depends on who you ask. And whichever term you use, someone’s going to tell you you’re wrong. We admittedly side-stepped the problem in our latest story, by Nat Geo’s Natasha Daly, calling them “free-ranging horses.”
“…The problem—or not (again, it depends on who you ask)—is their fast-growing numbers. They share a fragile landscape with native wildlife, a landscape that’s increasingly threatened by warming temperatures and lengthening droughts. They’re also sharing it with livestock.
This many animals on the land means good grazing and water can get scarce, and that could lead to slow, painful deaths.”
Do better, National Geographic. Start by fairly answering your own question: Why are we rounding up wild horses?]
It’s fair to say that National Geographic has shaped my view of the natural world. Growing up I devoured each new monthly edition of the magazine and poured through the back issues that thousands of American families like mine saved for posterity.
So it’s understandable that I was excited as a lifelong member of the National Geographic Society to see posted the July 29 article by Natasha Daly, “86,000 wild mustangs that roam the West are at the center of raging controversy.” The Washington-DC based writer has an outstanding resume covering animal welfare, conservation and exploitation, with a specialty in investigating illegal wildlife tourism. For a news peg, Daly used the recent mass removal and forced drugging with fertility control of the famed Onaqui Mountain herd of wild horses. I thought surely National Geographic’s coverage of this issue would bring balance and fresh insight in keeping with Nat Geo’s time-honored mission to use “the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world.”
Sadly, I was mistaken. Daly’s reporting on the ongoing eradication of wild horses from their ancestral home ranges across the American West is poorly sourced and riddled with uncontested untruths promulgated by the Bureau of Land Management and its cronies, chiefly the livestock industry that has long had the BLM in its pocket.
Let’s start with how Daly frames the “controversy,” then move on to inaccuracies in her reporting on how “the BLM is required by law to manage wild horse and burro populations in a way that it deems sustainable for the horses, the burros, the public lands they live on, and the ecosystem they inhabit.”
Daly writes, “The Onaqui herd ‘gather,’ the technical term for the rounding up of free-ranging horses, renewed outrage among activists and the public, leading to protests at the Utah State Capitol and outcry on social media.”
“Gather” is not a technical term. It’s a euphemism, BLM jargon to mask the traumatic effect of using helicopters to conduct an aerial assault on the free-roaming, 500-strong Onaqui herd and dozens of herds elsewhere in the American West. Over five days, helicopters and ground units forced 435 stallions, mares and foals across rugged country into pens where the animals were
separated from their families and either shipped off to spend the rest of their lives in distant corrals or sterilized and returned to the range. The reason for such drastic action? Daly tells us, “The Onaqui herd, BLM says on its website, was so big that it was beginning to degrade the land, and because of drought, the horses haven’t been able to find enough to eat and their health was declining.”
This statement runs counter to the BLM’s own testimony in a legal proceeding brought on by Friends of Animals to stop the Onaqui roundup. In truth, nearly 20% of the Onaqui HMA, some 45,000 acres, is still fenced off from wild horses following a 2017 fire despite successful revegetation seeding efforts. The BLM claimed it can’t remove the fence because of lack of funding but can afford a $467,000 helicopter roundup.
The BLM’s shading of on-the-ground facts belies the biggest lie: That there are too many horses on the Onaqui Herd Management Area, which spans 240,153 acres. While the BLM says the appropriate management level within the Onaqui Mountain HMA is between 121-210 wild horses, at the same time 228 cattle are allowed to graze the Onaqui Mountain West allotment, and 299 are allowed to graze in the East allotment. In the nearby West Lookout Pass allotment, a staggering 8,736 sheep are allowed to graze.
Across herd management areas in the American West, less than 20% of the forage is allocated to wild horses with, on average, over 80% given to domestic livestock. Domestic livestock operators pay $1.45 to graze a cow/calf pair a month; less than the cost of a single can of dog food. As noted wild horse advocate Craig C. Downer contends, “If the range is in trouble due to drought ‘emergency’ why are cows out in wild horse territory?”
In terms of sourcing her reporting, Daly states that “the BLM did not respond to requests for comment.” The agency didn’t have to, for Daly relies on a group of BLM-connected operatives to frame the “controversy” in starkly biased terms. In her article, Daly cites several members of the Free Roaming Equids and Ecosystem Sustainability (FREES) Network. Coordinated by Utah State University, “FREES brings stakeholders together to discuss science-based solutions and improve communication.” Funny, but of the top 10 articles on the FREES website’s “In the News” section, seven are BLM news releases.
Daly continues her one-sided approach: “Many scientists, including those at BLM, argue that the land simply cannot support the growing number of free-ranging horses, which aren’t a native
species—or even a wild one, depending on whom you ask. They’re descended from domestic horses brought to the continent by Europeans starting in the 16th century. ‘All of the horses are feral—they were released,’ says Terry Messmer, a professor in the department of wildland resources at Utah State University. ‘They came [into] an ecosystem they didn’t co-evolve with.’” The Utah State professor presumably isn’t familiar with the Timeline posted on his institution’s FREES website, which states, “… horses evolved on the North American continent prior to the Ice Age. They became extirpated approximately 10,000 years ago, about the same time as their major predators; sabre tooth cats, dire wolves, American lion and the short-nosed Bear.”
Other studies have demonstrated that wild horses support healthy ecosystems on public land if given enough habitat and left alone. For example, wild horses help spread plant seeds over large areas where they roam. Wild horses do not decompose the vegetation they ingest as thoroughly as ruminant grazers, such as cattle or sheep, which allows the seeds of many plant species to pass through their digestive tract intact into the soil that the wild horses fertilize by their droppings. Wild horses also help to prevent catastrophic fires and help to build more moisture-retaining soils.
Daly isn’t inclined to cite this recent research nor seek other informed views about the rights of wild horses to roam free on their ancestral lands. In May 2021, a federal appeals court ruled in favor of Friends of Animals’ bid to inclufde Montana’s unique Pryor Mountain wild horse herd on the country’s list of imperiled species.
FoA petitioned the Fish & Wildlife Service in 2017, stating Pryor Mountain mustangs’ lineage can be traced back to ancient horses who first evolved in North America and Eurasia, before being reintroduced by Spanish settlers. The Old Spanish genetic lineage has since been lost in Spain due to domestic breeding.
“This moves the Pryor Mountain wild horses into queue for full and fair consideration under the Endangered Species Act,” said Michael Harris, general counsel, director of FoA’s Wildlife Law Program. “There are a scarce 170 left on 27,000 acres after years of the BLM taking away
mares’ ability to reproduce by forcibly drugging them with a fertility pesticide and years of yanking so-called ‘excess’ horses off the land to be part of an adoption scheme.”
Which brings us to another example of Daly’s sketchy sourcing, her reliance on a wild horse advocacy group, unironically named Return to Freedom, which operates a sanctuary and calls for the widespread use of the pesticide PZP, which renders mares infertile.
“This tragic roundup could have been avoided by implementing a successful fertility control program years ago,” Daly quotes Neda DeMayo, executive director, as saying.
Unfortunately, DeMayo seems unaware that the BLM has been dosing Onaqui mares with PZP since at least 2015. This approach was destined to fail. Administering PZP not only requires capturing horses by roundups, but independent studies conducted more than a decade ago by Princeton University showed that prolonged infertility has significant consequences on social behavior of the herds, as well as inducing dangerous late birthing of foals out of season. That research, of wild horses on the Shackleford Banks in North Carolina, managed by the National Park Service, led the NPS to stop its PZP contraceptive program in 2009.
Even the sterilization advocates at Return to Freedom express qualms with Daly’s statement, “Many activists call for a permanent stop to roundups and instead a mass rollout of birth control darting.” Celeste Carlisle, a biologist with Return to Freedom (who is also a member of the National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board consisting of advocacy groups, research institutions, veterinarians and ranchers), counters that darting is unrealistic and “that unfortunately means gathers have to occur so that we can utilize fertility control,” Adds Carlisle, “The gold standard would be if the reproductive birth rate could be slowed so you don’t have populations growing.”
That “gold standard” doesn’t describe a herd of free-roaming wild horses, but a zoo. As the National Academy of Sciences reported in 2013, the BLM’s assertions that populations are increasing by some 20 percent or more each year are not based on sound scientific methodology. That’s why the subject of birth controls should be a non-starter.
Daly buys into a status quo system in which the BLM spends millions of dollars a year not to protect wild horses, but to subsidize livestock ranchers who graze cattle and sheep on land where wild horses are treated as pests. Worse, the BLM’s continual roundups line the pockets of a small network of Utah and Nevada cattlemen who make millions each year off the backs of wild horses. Cattoor Livestock Roundup, the BLM’s helicopter roundup contractor of choice, earned $20 million from BLM contracts from 2008 to 2018, reports the American Wild Horse Campaign. Uhalde Livestock LLC of Ely, Nevada, was awarded a $5 million contract in September 2017 to conduct trapping operations in the 10 Western states to remove wild horses and burros from public lands. And while the BLM manages about a dozen of its own short-term holding corrals at great expense, it also uses a handful of private short-term corrals to warehouse rounded-up wild horses. One is Axtell Off-Range Corrals in Utah, which earned $10,291,342 from BLM wild horse and burro holding contracts from 2015 to 2018, according to the AWHC.
These misguided policies and draconian eradication efforts mask half a century of wild horse mismanagement by the BLM. FoA urges federal agencies and legislators to focus on implementing reserve design, a holistic way to manage wild horses. Reserve design would allow wild horses to reoccupy their full legal status as outlined by the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act, abrogated by the BLM and their crony ranchers, and involves utilizing natural and artificial barriers, natural predators, as well as community-involved buffer zones. Once available habitat is filled, wild horses and burros, both climax species, will limit their own population as density-dependent controls are triggered.
Since the passage of WHBA, meant to ensure their safety to roam free, wild horses have lost 41 percent of their habitat — more than 20 million acres. Six states have already lost their entire wild horse populations: Missouri, Iowa, Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.
The meat industry, as well as oil, gas and mineral extraction projects, are fragmenting habitat for wild horses and other wildlife across the American West, damaging the environment and contributing to climate change. Of the 245 million acres of public land managed by the BLM, 155 million is open to livestock grazing. By contrast, wild horses are restricted to just 26.9 million acres, which they must share with livestock. Lots of livestock. Today, upward of 2 million cattle graze public lands, not to mention millions of sheep — compared to a measly 86,000 wild horses.
As the U.S. celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, the story that National Geographic needs to tell is about the right of America’s wild horse to live free to flourish in their own way – and to show how the BLM and its allies believe that these majestic animals only have value if they can be captured, adopted out or domesticated. And that is a national disgrace.