by Nicole Rivard

In one of the opening scenes of the new TV series “Yellowstone,” set in Montana, an employee of the fictional IL Energy hires a cowboy to get rid of a herd of wild horses who are in the way of the company’s next drilling project. “Damn mustang has done more in one week to stop drilling than every environmental group in the state,” he tells the cowboy, who later captures the stallion, ripping him from his home and family on the range.

Unfortunately, that’s art imitating life.

The commercialization of Western federal public lands is worse than ever, which means Friends of Animals (FoA) is fortifying our efforts toward relieving the plight of America’s wild horses through legal action and public awareness.  

The government has authorized thousands of oil, gas and mineral extraction projects and upwards of 2 million cattle graze public lands. These activities are the real cause of range degradation, not an overpopulation of wild horses, a myth perpetuated by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Those activities have substantially fragmented, and reduced habitat left for wild horses. Adding insult to injury, over the summer the Trump administration issued a policy that stops requiring drillers and miners to pay for adverse impacts to wildlife habitats on federal lands.

Since the passage of the Wild Horse and Burro Act of 1971, wild horses have lost more than 20 million acres of habitat. 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 across 10 Western states, which they must share with livestock.

We don’t believe it’s a coincidence that in Wyoming and Utah, two of the three states where the BLM was poised to round up the most wild horses in 2018, gas and oil parcels abound. For example, parcels sold in 2016- 2017 are scattered throughout three of the five wild horse herd management areas (HMAS) within Wyoming’s Red Desert Complex, where the BLM removed 1,425 wild horses in August and September.

And wild horses in the Red Desert Complex are also still dealing with their biggest threat—the cattle and sheep ranching industry. The appropriate management level for wild horses there is a scant 480, however upwards of 4,785 cows and 3,442 sheep are allowed to graze.

Likewise, in Utah, oil and gas parcels sold in 2016- 2017 are dispersed throughout the Conger, Onaqui, Muddy Creek and Range Creek wild horse herd management areas, where 306 wild horses were rounded up this year. The appropriate management level for these areas combined is 311 wild horses, while at least 2,162 cattle and 1,916 sheep are allowed to graze there.

The BLM’s report to Congress released earlier this year outlining management options showed its true colors—that it evolved from the United States Grazing Service, which as the name suggests, catered to cattle and sheep ranchers. Asking an agency wedded to the meat industry how to manage wild horses on public lands is like asking Harvey Weinstein to come up with a plan to address the atrocities against women brought to light by the #MeToo movement.

That’s why FoA is not surprised the “report” called for massive removals, permanent sterilization, sale without limitation and slaughter. The report, which laments the cost of the wild horse and burro program, also fails to mention that U.S. taxpayers lost more than $1 billion over the past decade because of livestock grazing on public lands, according to a 2015 study. In 2014 alone, taxpayers lost $125 million in grazing subsidies on federal land. “Welfare ranchers” pay dirt-cheap grazing fees, half of which end up benefitting them, plus they receive federal disaster subsidies and benefit from government predator control programs (see sidebar).









Since that report was released, the BLM quietly issued its Wild Horse Sale Policy to get around a Congressional ban on slaughter. The policy, which was released May 25 but wasn’t made public until July 20, allows buyers to purchase 24 horses at a time with no questions asked.

In August, FoA filed a lawsuit challenging the policy.

“The policy removes many of the procedural safeguards put in place to prevent the sale of wild horses to individuals who seek to resell them to slaughter,” said Michael Harris, director of Friends of Animals Wildlife Law Program. “A vast majority of Americans—including Congress—believe that wild horses should not be wantonly slaughtered by BLM. But in issuing an order this summer for BLM to expedite the sale of wild horses to third parties by the truck load, Interior Secretary Zinke is putting in place his own version of a slaughter plan regardless of the views of Congress and the public.”

Prior to the 2018 Wild Horse Policy, a buyer could only purchase four wild horses or burros in a six-month period. The policy was implemented in 2013 after it was discovered that a Colorado livestock buyer sent more than 1,700 mustangs to slaughter.

In its lawsuit, FoA states BLM broke the law because such a policy is subject to notice and public comment; it is an arbitrary and capricious reversal of BLM’s past policies; and it violates the 2018 Consolidated Appropriations Act.

To avoid scrutiny of its wild horse extinction scheme, BLM has also begun proposing 10-year wild horse management plans, which FoA is also litigating. Most recently, FoA filed a lawsuit in August challenging two of the BLM’s 10-year management plans that authorize fertility control and ongoing, multiple roundups and removals of wild horses from Nevada’s Pine Nut Mountain and Utah’s Muddy Creek HMAS.

“It is no coincidence that the move toward these 10-year plans, which don’t require roundup-specific analysis or new data or engage the public, comes on the heels of the agency’s May 25 decision to sell off dozens of horses to get around a Congressional ban on slaughter,” said Harris. “BLM desires to take this type of long-range, but short-sighted, approach to manage wild horses for nearly all herd management areas to avoid further scrutiny of its overall plan to virtually zero out wild horse populations on public lands.”

In the lawsuit, FoA states that BLM has disregarded its statutory and regulatory obligation to undertake roundup-specific analysis of the horses and their habitat. The BLM is also ignoring its responsibility to ensure public participation in such decisions, and is increasing the likelihood that future wild horse removals and fertility control treatments will be based on obsolete data.

Plus, the plans ignore several studies demonstrating that fertility control treatments may cause irreversible sterility in mares as well as out-of-season births, herd instability and general decline in immune function.

BLM is proposing similar long-term roundup plans in several other herd management areas as well. Earlier this year, FoA filed a lawsuit to halt a decision that authorizes rounding up and permanently removing approximately 9,525 wild horses from Antelope and Triple B wild horse complexes in Nevada. The plan also authorizes years of further roundups, forcibly drugging mares with fertility control and castrating stallions, some of whom will be returned to the range.

“This is the definition of animal cruelty,” said Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals. “Not only could castration be a death sentence because of the risk of hemorrhaging and infection, for the horses who do survive, they will be robbed of their natural behaviors, putting them at a disadvantage on the range in terms of survival. These are native wild animals, not domesticated dogs and cats.”

Experts in wild horse behavior have reported that castrated stallions will be at risk of being inflicted with fatal injuries by other intact stallions. And decrease in muscle mass, strength and bone density from castration will also make geldings more susceptible to disease and predation and could hinder their ability to traverse the harsh terrain and distances they need to travel for food and water.

Their lack of potency could also lead to frustrated attempts at conception, creating social unrest and negatively affecting the overall fitness of the herd.

“The BLM feels more emboldened than ever because of the Trump administration to completely disregard the Wild Horse and Burro Act, which requires the agency to protect and manage wild free-roaming horses in a manner that is designed to achieve and maintain a thriving, natural ecological balance on public lands,” said Feral. “The only thing this administration cares about is courting oil and gas drillers and selling off public lands, and the only thing the BLM cares about is treating ranchers as clients. It’s a deadly combination for wild horses on public lands, and we won’t stand by and do nothing.”