The Bureau of Land Management’s relentless assault on the nation’s remaining herds of wild horses is intensifying, with a slew of “emergency” removals taking place this summer and fall across the American West.  

The number of wild horses removed in the much-publicized helicopter assault on the Sand Wash HMA of northwestern Colorado totaled 684 animals, about 80% of the historic herd, with 52 horses released, included some mares dosed with fertility control drugs. In an Aug. 27 press release announcing the removal operation, the BLM declared, “This emergency gather prevents impacts to wild horses and the environment due to exceptional drought and lack of forage.”  

The Sand Wash helicopter roundup was delayed by – get this, monsoon rains – which should have washed out the BLM’s excuse for removing the wild horses at all. So the agency issued a second statement, on Sept. 1, this time blaming the wild horses for declining numbers of the greater sage grouse: “Overgrazing by wild horses in Sand Wash is having a direct impact on sage-grouse and other wildlife.” 

The Sand Wash removals meant to protect sage grouse from wild horses ended after 12 days, just in time for state officials to open the annual Colorado Sage Grouse hunting season, where from Sept. 12 to Sept. 18 hunters are welcome to bag two grouse per day. Hunters operate on the honor system, and the state tracks kills by doing follow-up surveys by phone and email. In 2020, the survey contacted 1,505 hunters; 30 reported they had successfully hunted grouse, which allowed the state to extrapolate that 1,149 grouse were killed by hunters last year.  

It could be worse, if you’re a sage grouse. Just over the border in Wyoming, where in coming weeks the BLM intends to remove 3,555 wild horses from five herd areas in the Checkerboard area spanning over 4 million acres, hunters killed at least 874 greater sage grouse hens last year. That number stems from a sampling by the state Game and Fish Department, which asks hunters to deposit in roadside collection barrels one wing from each sage grouse taken. What a cavalier, even careless approach to take in managing an imperiled species whose numbers have decreased an estimated 81% nationwide over the past half century. But sure, blame wild horses. 

The BLM’s Vale Field Office, in charge of an emergency roundup of 1,900 of the 2,500 wild horses that roam over nearly 1 million acres of the Barren Valley herd management areas in eastern Oregon, must have gotten the memo. Their Sept. 8 announcement includes this inartful reference to their latest alibi: “The BLM works to maintain a thriving ecological balance that supports healthy horses on healthy rangelands that provide adequate habitat, forage and water for horses, wildlife, including Greater Sage-grouse, and livestock.” 

This new line of scapegoating wild horses by federal agencies has been given a fig leaf of scientific cover by a recent study hypothesizing that sage-grouse abundance is “likely to decline by 2.6% for every 50% increase in horse abundance” over the BLM-mandated Appropriate Management Levels, according to an Aug. 2 press release from the U.S. Geological Survey. Never mind that the process the BLM uses to set and maintain AMLs has been shown to lack scientific credibility. The study also gave the federal agencies a scaremongering headline to run with: “Greater sage-grouse populations may decline by more than 70% within free-roaming horse-occupied areas by 2034 if horse populations increase unchecked at current rates.” 

The study, led by Peter Coates, a research wildlife biologist with the USGS Western Ecological Research Center, was partially funded by the BLM through the Results Oriented Grazing for Ecological Resiliency project, a collaboration among ranchers and state and federal agencies “to achieve land management objectives that conservesagebrush ecosystems and support ranching.” Small wonder, then, that the research did not consider how sage grouse may be impacted by cows, which outnumber wild horses in HMAs they both inhabit. 

“Any study targeting wild horses – even a scientific study – no matter how dense the statistical analysis, how complete the modeling data, lacks credibility if it disregards domestic livestock impacts completely,” says Don Molde, writing for the Sierra Nevada Ally. “Wild horses and domestic livestock are ‘joined at the hip’ on public lands in the West.” 

“‘Fingering’ wild horses as contributors to greater sage-grouse decline (despite their relative lack of importance) likely means this work will serve more of a ‘political’ purpose than a scientific contribution to our understanding of greater sage-grouse decline,” says Molde, who cites other examples of Coates’ research being used to give cover to the hunting and ranching lobbies. 

What the BLM researcher fails to reconcile, much less even acknowledge, is the simple fact that the now-threatened greater sage grouse somehow managed to thrive across the American West, in untold numbers and for centuries, in harmony with millions of wild horses. That’s an order of magnitude more than the 80,000 or so wild horses the BLM now allows to exist in tightly controlled allotments until they can schedule the next series of forced removals.  

Maybe, just maybe, the real threat to sage grouse (and wild horses) could be the ranchers who have decimated the arid sagebrush range by overgrazing it with cattle and sheep at give-away prices from the BLM. Or the invasive, highly flammable cheatgrass they brought in to feed all that low-rent meat in the off-season. Or the rapacious extraction industries that have for a century and more carved up all the land and leks they wanted to with coal mines and oil wells, and all the roads, rail tracks, power lines and pipe to frack and fragment the rangeland further.  

Wild horses and grouse aren’t enemies. They’re actually co-victims in the federal agencies’ ongoing campaign to clear the American West’s remarkable sagebrush steppes of any and all impediments so their cronies in the meat and mining industries can make a cheap buck off American taxpayers. 

The BLM and other agencies charged with protecting wild horses under the Wild and Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971 require wholesale reform in order to stop the escalating eradication of these living symbols of the American spirit. And it’s clear that they will change course only when required by courts to do so. To that necessary end, Friends of Animals’ Wildlife Law Program will continue to advance litigation based on fact, precedence, and ethical integrity to save wild horses from harassment and slaughter. Stay tuned. 

In the meantime, advocates of wild horses (and sage grouse) who believe in their right to live free and without exploitation and cruelty need to express their views directly to the powers that be: Deb Haaland, Secretary of the Interior Dept. (202-208-3100), and Nada Wolff Culver, BLM Deputy Director for Policy and Programs (202-208-3801). Public pressure appears to have had an effect in curtailing even more damage to the wild horse herds of Colorado’s Sand Wash basin; thousands more wild horses are targeted for emergency BLM removals through the fall in California, Idaho, and Wyoming, with further assaults on herds in Nevada and Oregon.