by Scott Smith, Communications Director
The Bureau of Land Management is in the midst of a treacherous, premeditated double-cross of the wild horses the federal agency is duty-bound to protect under the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act.
First, the BLM has prepared an “emergency action” to capture 50% more horses than they originally planned this year on rangeland across the West to “prevent widespread thirst and mortality,” the agency announced on Aug. 2. The BLM says the expanded effort concentrates on places where “chronic overpopulation” of the herds already has stretched the available food and water to its limits, reports the Associated Press. The number of wild horses to be taken from their home ranges this year would be more than double the 9,181 removed in 2020.
Second, the BLM is withholding access to land, water and forage for the remaining 68,000 wild horses in fealty to a small group of ranchers who are permitted to graze millions of cows and sheep on the same public lands, at costs far below the rates charged by private owners of comparable range land so that people can eat cheap hamburgers.
Of the 245 million acres of public land managed by the BLM, wild horses are restricted to just 26.9 million acres, which they must share with livestock. Meanwhile, upwards 2 million cattle and millions more sheep are given free rein to 155 million acres across the American West, an arid and fragile landscape wholly unsuitable for domestic livestock, especially in such numbers and in a period of extended drought.
“For centuries, domestic breeds of cattle were selectively bred to graze in the lush, highly productive meadows of northern Europe. When dropped off in arid lands, they congregate along the thin green strips of riparian habitat bordering rivers and streams, destroying these oases of biodiversity and trampling the streams into shallow, muddy trickles of fecal coliform,” explains Erik Molvar, a wildlife biologist who serves as Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit conservation group working to protect and restore wildlife and watersheds throughout the American West.
A cow and a calf require nearly 14 acres of land to feed for one year in the West versus just two acres in the East, said Randi Spivak, public lands program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, in an article published by takepart.com during a previous drought in 2016. “Livestock grazing is very damaging in the arid West.”
Adds Molvar: “Most desert lands should not be grazed by herds of domestic livestock year after year. When overgrazing is sufficiently severe to eliminate the native grasses and fragile biological soil crusts that are nature’s defense against invasive weeds, massive infestations of foreign annual plants like cheatgrass and medusahead wildrye often result.”
Wild horses, in contrast, are superbly adapted to the land on which they first evolved, before being extirpated 10,000 years ago and ultimately returned to their ancestral homeland by Spanish explorers in the 16th century. The most recent study indicates wild horses are ecosystem engineers and know how to tap the earth for water. According to a paper published April 2021 in the journal Science, the animals use their hooves to dig more than six feet deep to reach groundwater for themselves.
This eco-engineering creates oases that serve as a boon to other wildlife. And as Friends of Animals’ has cited in its ongoing legal efforts to protect what the BLM archly describes as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West,” numerous other studies have demonstrated that wild horses support healthy ecosystems on public land if given enough habitat and left alone.
Wild horses have a caecal digestive system, meaning they do not decompose the grasses and shrubs they ingest as thoroughly as ruminant grazers, such as cattle or sheep. This allows the seeds of many plant species to pass through their digestive tract intact and the horses’ manure to gradually release nutrients into the soil over all seasons to the benefit of plants, animals, and entire food web. Unlike ruminant grazers, which often rip up plants from their roots, exposing soil to destructive wind and rain erosion, wild horses have upper and lower incisors that permit them to selectively nip pieces of vegetation without tearing out the root of the plant. Additionally, wild horses are able to consume dry, parched and flammable vegetation, and thus may help prevent catastrophic wildfires.
Utterly beholden to the meat industry, the BLM not only ignores scientific information about the positive impact of wild horses on the habitat where they evolved but also actively resists taking measures to manage wild horse populations in a sustainable way, as the landmark WHBA law requires. Laura Leigh, founder of Wild Horse Education, charges that the BLM has allowed water sources to be turned off and wells to be dismantled in herd management areas (HMAs) that are designated for wild horse use. “In these same HMAs the agency has refused offers from WHE to pay for new wells or repairs. Instead, the agency does inadequate water hauls, often giving the contract to haul to the exact people [livestock ranchers] who pressured the agency to turn off the water.”
In July, the BLM used the specter of drought to justify the roundup of 435 of the 500 wild horses from the famed Onaqui Mountain herd in Utah, while admitting in court that nearly 20% of the Onaqui HMA, some 45,000 acres, is still fenced off from wild horses following a 2017 fire, despite successful revegetation efforts. The BLM claimed it can’t remove the fencing because of lack of funding but can afford a $467,000 helicopter roundup. This while the agency allows more than 500 cows and up to 8,736 sheep to graze the same allotments.
The BLM is using its emergency action to wipe out an entire wild horse herd in Colorado. Here’s the tortured justification as posted on the BLM’s constantly updated “gathers & removals” website: “The White River Field Office has determined that the West Douglas Herd Area and other areas outside the Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area are not to be managed for wild horses because of the complex terrain and lack of summer range. However, wild horses have continued to exist here for a variety of reasons and are at population levels that require excess wild horses to utilize private land for food and water resources. The Appropriate Management Level for the West Douglas Herd Area is zero wild horses. The current estimated population is approximately 450 wild horses.”
The helicopter-driving trapping of the herd began on July 26 and so far has resulted in the deaths of eight horses. Incredibly, on August 12, FoA received reports from wild-horse advocates that the BLM is allowing ranchers to put “713 cow/calf pair out on the West Douglas Range where they just zeroed out the entire herd that had been there since the 1600s.”
Even the welcome arrival of monsoonal rains across the Nevada desert isn’t enough to halt the BLM’s draconian drive to eradicate wild horses. Citing a lack of water and forage amid severe drought conditions, on July 29 the BLM announced plans to gather and remove approximately 2,200 “excess” wild horses from the Antelope Complex southeast of Elko. On August 6, a Nevada citizen and volunteer for the nonprofit Love Wild Horses traveled to Antelope Valley and “photographed beautiful, healthy wild horses wading and drinking in two moderate-size lakes of water,” reports Jetara Séhart, the group’s founder and president. “Surprisingly, only five or six miles from the watering sites, she saw the large BLM horse removal operation with a helicopter, semi-trucks, fencing holding pens, and cage trailers.”
When presented with photos of the newly created reservoirs, the BLM’s Elko Field Manager said, “Water being impounded in the reservoirs doesn’t mean that a gather operation is no longer necessary. There is very little forage to go into the winter, and water supply has not been a concern on the Ely portion of the gather. The wild horse population is still well over AML [appropriate management level]; I cannot commit to you that any of those horses won’t be removed.”
Within the 1,650,000 acres of the Nevada Antelope Complex HMA, the BLM-deduced appropriate management level is only 435-789 wild horses. In stark contrast to the BLM’s near-zero equine grazing and watering rights allowance, the cattle and sheep are granted to graze and water in excess, adds Séhart. “This is an obscenity, one that the FoA will continue to challenge in the courts,” says Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals. “The hypocrisy and duplicity of the BLM in justifying the removal of wild horses from their home ranges across the West is galling and cannot be allowed to stand.”
In language reminiscent of the “we had to destroy the village in order to save it” mindset of the Vietnam War, Nada Wolff Culver, the BLM’s deputy director for policy and programs, has said in defense of the forced removals, “As one of the agencies charged with the responsibility to protect and manage America’s wild horses and burros, the BLM is prepared to take emergency action where we can in order to save the lives of these cherished animals.”
Tragically, the new BLM managers brought in by the Biden Administration are singing the same old tune: Use the lame excuses of drought and overpopulation to remove wild horses from the land they were made for so that ill-suited and doomed livestock don’t have to compete for limited food and water.
Hey, BLM – if you are so concerned with saving the lives of these “cherished” animals you’re supposed to protect and in preserving the long-term health of public land you’re supposed to safeguard, stop the deadly roundups of wild horses and take cows and sheep off the range.