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Would we want our children or grandchildren to see how America's horses are treated by our public agencies?

Alliance of Wild Horse Advocates'



Issue: The Calico Mountains Complex wild horse roundup.

Update: 1/23/10 Situation Report Update

With the death toll now at nine horses, wild horse advocacy groups are stirred to new anger and the BLM appears to be working hard to spin the issue. In the words of one advocate, "They can put lipstick on a pig and call it pretty, but it's still a pig."

The reality is that wild horse roundups are dangerous. The nine horse deaths were reported on BLM's Gather Activities Updates page that have been associated with this gather. While two of the horses that were euthanized were elderly and in poor condition and a third had a fatal cardio defect, the other six horses died in BLM custody.

The horses brought in from the Calico gather are being fed oat hay until the veterinarian determines that they can be transitioned to more economical alfalfa. Therefore there is no indication that BLM's facility operations were careless. The simple matter is that these kinds of activities can be mortally dangerous to some of the horses.

While a number of advocates expressed appreciation for BLM's candor in publishing news and statistics about the horses being gathered from the Calico Mountains Complex, the losses were a clear reminder as to how serious a business rounding up large numbers of animals can be.

This greater effort to present the facts, good or bad, that are associated with BLM's horse management activities unfortunately appears to be limited to the district and "field" level. While the Winnemucca Field Office was making a visible effort to publish some "straight talk," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and BLM Director Bob Abbey were spinning yarns from their desks in Washington, D.C. Mr. Abbey misquoted a few "facts" in an op-ed piece that accused horse advocates of producing myths, and Secretary Salazar distributed an op-ed in a number of newspapers that illustrated a disconnect between what goes on out on the range and the perception back in Washington, D.C.

One of the myths constantly spewing forth from BLM / DOI is that BLM has to gather horses due to an absence of predators. Yet cougars (mountain lions) have become problematic to the extent that they are occasionally prowling Nevada's residential neighborhoods. One was struck on busy US-50 in Lyon County. A man rescued his son from a cougar attack inside the city limits of the state capitol and ended up in the hospital. Churchill County recently held a "Coyote Hunt Day" to reduce the coyote problem in and around the city of Fallon. The layoffs of the state trappers appear to be having a definite impact on citizens, their livestock and the horse herds where foals are disappearing at a rather startling rate, and the two cougar examples occurred before predator control cutbacks.

Therefore observers find it amazing that Secretary Salazar and Director Abbey continue to claim that the west is devoid of predators as an offering from their own "menu of myths."

To be fair, the wild horse advocacy camp has myth makers of its own. So any fair accusation levied against one side should include an admission that one's own side includes people who are distributing incorrect information.

Why is all of this important?

Bringing some sense to the wild horse issue is going to require application of facts through such fields as ecology, biology, correct management of resources, preservation of environmental quality, range health, etc. Horse ranges are diverse in resources and conditions. There is no one-size-fits-all strategy that will work, nor is there a magic pill that either side can provide that will produce healthy, sustainable horse herds on healthy, sustainable ranges.

When one reads the Wild Free-roaming Horses and Burros Act the reader can recognize that Congress' intent was to protect and preserve the variety of distinctive horse herds found on public lands, that management be conducted utilizing appropriate science, based on valid data, and in consultation with wildlife and other agencies to protect the ecological balance of all wildlife. Congress also ordered that all horse management activities be conducted at the "minimal feasible level."

Congress clearly indicated that free-roaming horses and burros should not be allowed to displace other wildlife species, but Congress also clearly directed that a relatively minimalist approach be used in managing horse and burro populations.

Many mainstream observers have concluded that what Congress intended was to prevent over management of horse and burro populations. Yet, if scientific data proved that conditions warranted it, it would be appropriate to remove horses where ranges were suffering due to wildfire damage, extreme drought, and other exceptional circumstances. These instances should pretty self-evident.

BLM was also charged with the responsibility of scientifically assessing the carrying capacity of public lands, determine the utilization of that capacity by horses, wildlife and livestock, and adjust horse populations as may be required to preserve a "thriving ecological balance." It is in these instances where things get fuzzy.

Advocates argue that for many years horse management decisions have been made based too greatly on estimates and projections rather than on "hard" range forage and animal population data. In support of these arguments, advocates point out a number of situations where BLM justified removals because horse populations were several times the carrying capacity of the ranges where horses are being removed. However if the ranges could not sustain such numbers of horses, how could the herds at the same time be experiencing the population explosions as BLM also claimed? BLM's argument is counterintuitive.

There is also evidence that range damage actually caused by private livestock later becomes attributed to horses. As an example, recent difficulties in restoration of mule deer habitat in the Pine Nut Range (replanting of bitter brush and similar vegetation) was explained by the wildlife biologists working on the project as being caused by cattle. Yet to listen to Gerald Lent and the Nevada Wildlife Commission, the damage was caused by horses.

Since horse ranges are so diverse and microclimates can differ greatly between ranges, neither argument - that just horses or that just livestock cause all the damage - is valid. Both classes of animals impact the range. However some basic changes in management strategies such as reserve design, equine based ecology, managed grazing, a serious effort at temporary birth control, restocking herds depleted by predators, restocking appropriate ranges where horses were eliminated, and revitalizing the adoption program for horses that have been removed, are among the viable options that would lessen the need for expensive horse removals.

Advocates also argue that if maintaining a thriving ecological habitat is a management priority, then commercial interests using public lands resources should pay full fair market value for the privilege of taking those resources.

BLM says that it cannot afford to attempt these alternatives, however it is currently fixated on perhaps the most expensive option available - removing horses in huge numbers and boarding them. Ironically BLM's "can't afford to" excuse is correct. The agency is so committed to removing and boarding horses that holding costs are sucking money out of BLM's budget at an unprecedented rate. Additionally, some options would require Congress to amend some provisions in the Act.

Until people at the "field level" at BLM can get upper level bureaucrats to consider practical options, and until advocates can convince Congress to mandate some changes in wild horse policy, the wild horse and burro program will continue on the path to oblivion.

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