Stalemate on managing wild horses ensues
Some organizations are advocating the removal of livestock in order to allow for higher populations of wild horses and burros. Photo by Traci Eatherton
While Biden has overturned a number of previous administrations’ policies, his plans for managing the 1971 Free-Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act are still up in the air. But environmentalist groups are leading the charge, hoping the new administration will boot the grazing competition on any public lands.
More than 70 groups have sent a letter to the Biden Administration’s new interior secretary, asking that all livestock grazing allotments that overlap designated herd management areas (HMAs) be canceled. The letter, dated April 9, claims that the removal of the cattle will “promote rapid progress toward” establishing a “Thriving Natural Ecological Balance” for all species occupying federal rangelands.
Groups such as the American Wild Horse Campaign (AWHC) hailed the Biden administration’s confirmation of U.S. Rep. Debra Haaland as secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, hoping that her past record would turn the tables.
“As a congresswoman, Rep. Haaland has been a champion for reform of the mismanaged federal wild horse and burro program. We look forward to working with her to implement sensible solutions to humanely manage these majestic animals that 80 percent of Americans want to protect,” said Suzanne Roy, executive director of the AWHC.
The letter comes on the heels of the Bureau of Land Managements year-long commemoration plans, celebrating 50 years of the act that was set up to provide wild horses and burros (WHB) on federal lands with legally protected status.
The act was passed unanimously by both houses of Congress and signed into law by President Richard M. Nixon. The Act defines WHB as “all unbranded and unclaimed horses and burros on public lands of the United States” and recognizes them as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; that they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people.”
While the intentions of the act were noble, it created an opportunity for more division between activists and public lands users.
“To maintain wild horses and burros in good condition and protect the health of our public lands, the BLM must manage the population growth of wild horse and burro herds. Without natural population controls, such as predation, herds can increase at a rate of up to 20 percent annually, doubling in size in just four to five years, if not appropriately managed. Population control must be implemented to protect scarce and fragile resources in the arid West and ensure healthy animals,” BLM states on its website.
But the population control has been anything but successful. The act set horse number limits on grazing lands, and those limits have not been met for years. The most recent nationwide wild horse and burro population estimate, as of March 1, 2020 is 95,114 animals.
BLM determines what is called the appropriate Animal Management Level, which is the number of wild horses and burros that can thrive in balance with other public land resources and uses. Currently, according to BLM, there are approximately 26,770 wild horses and burros that need to be removed from rangelands to comply with the 1971 law.
Despite the fact that horses have no predators and increase in number yearly without a major interrupter, activists groups believe cattle ranchers are the problems. However, the current rangeland numbers of horses is almost four times the maximum number of animals BLM says federal rangelands can sustain without causing damage to vegetation, soils and other resources. The current AML level for WHB populations on federal rangelands is 26,715.
The groups that signed the letter claim that the current amount of livestock allowed on public lands is “severely biased against horse populations and other protected and native species on horse-occupied” HMAs that are managed by BLM. And that bias “has generated a severe excess in adverse livestock-grazing-associated impact that is inconsistent with both the letter and spirit” of the act.
“The era of the agency prioritizing livestock grazing must come to a hard stop,” said Allondra Stevens, founder of the Horses for Life Foundation, one of the groups that signed the letter. Other groups on the letter included the Cloud Foundation, Western Watersheds Project and WildEarth Guardians.
“Under the looming demands of climate change, removing livestock on HMAs will help restore the health of ecosystems and allow for our wild equids and other wildlife to safely thrive throughout the Western states,” Stevens said.
While activist groups point the finger at grazing allotments, BLM says cattle numbers are actually down on allotments with horses. Livestock grazing on BLM-managed land has declined by about 29 percent since 1971 — from 12.2 million animal unit months (AUMs) to 8.7 million AUMs in Fiscal Year 2019, according to BLM reports.
The letter also asks Haaland for the “preparation of a robust, broad-based scientific assessment of the baseline ecological conditions that have been adversely impacted by livestock grazing (and associated infrastructure) to serve as the basis for determination of sustainable wild horse numbers and use, and for determining HMA restoration/recovery/sustainability actions.”
“BLM recently found innumerable land health violations on the Wilson Creek livestock grazing allotment in Nevada and also admitted that it could not distinguish adverse livestock impacts from wild horse impacts,” wrote Katie Fite, public lands director of Wildlands Defense. “Yet BLM still issued new decisions that enable more livestock grazing in the future, while at the same time it continued with the removal of nearly 1,100 horses from the associated Eagle HMA Complex horse populations.”
Eagle is one of Nevada’s 82 HMAs, and the current WHB population in Nevada is estimated at 51,528, with the maximum number set at 12,811. Nevada has the largest population of wild horses and burros, with California coming in second at 12,241, and Wyoming third at 8,706. California has a maximum AML number at 2,200 and Wyoming is set at 3,795.
The letter concludes, “Addressing livestock-induced ecological problems within BLM Herd Management Areas would potentially restore the ability of these lands to sequester carbon, help climate stabilization efforts, and also address biodiversity issues. If successfully implemented (and augmented further through permanent protection), such an initiative may qualify wild horse HMAs for inclusion in the 30×30 effort.”
But the groups’ intentions are questionable and lacking facts, according to Jim Magagna, executive vice resident, at Wyoming Stockgrowers Association.
“The groups that have sent this letter have clearly demonstrated that they have no understanding of the challenges posed by unmanaged horse populations. The issue is not horses vs. cows. It is excess horse populations vs. sustainable healthy rangelands,” Magagna said. “Their position is driven by emotion and hatred for the livestock industry, not by reality.”
The Trump administration, along with a coalition of ag based groups, including National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the Public Lands Council devised a plan two years ago that included fertility controls, more roundups, adoption incentives, and contracts with private lands for grazing.
Ag groups credit cooperation between BLM and livestock producers and believe this cooperation has benefited horse populations and ecosystem health.
“After decades of horse populations spiraling out of control, ranchers and well-meaning conservation groups developed a historic solution that recognized the need to reduce on-range populations to prevent rangeland degradation, protect wildlife and safeguard all multiple uses. This agreement, in cooperation with BLM, is bringing us closer to a time when horses can once again be part of a thriving ecosystem, rather than destroying it,” said NCBA Executive Director of Natural Resources and Public Lands Council Executive Director Kaitlynn Glover.
“Despite some extreme fringe groups’ complete departure from science and fact, the facts are clear to us and to the BLM. The path toward healthy horses, healthy rangelands, and healthy wildlife is championed by those who have been stewards of the land for generations — ranchers,” Glover concludes.
The cooperation also includes a lot of give from private ranches in HMA areas.
“Most of the water sources in the desert areas such as southwestern Wyoming were developed and are maintained by the ranchers. Were this discontinued, the horses would face significant water shortages in many areas especially in drought years,” Magagna said.
The act allows BLM to remove horses that have strayed on to private lands, at the request of landowners, according to Magagna, but the unfenced area in HMA’s makes it nearly impossible to keep horses off private lands. While most ranchers have been relatively accepting of the horses, the growth in horse population is making it difficult.
“As populations have raged out of control, this becomes unacceptable and leads to litigation,” Magagna said.
“At this time, I believe that our approach needs to be to educate the public and decision makers on these realities. We cannot charge BLM and USFS with the mission of managing for healthy landscapes, then burden them with uncontrolled horse populations,” Magagna concluded.
Meanwhile, roundup plans, population control and management discussions continue in overpopulated HMA’s.
Rock Springs, Wyo., has a 30-day public comment period open on a BLM proposal to remove approximately 3,500 wild horses from public land in southwest Wyoming. The public comment period that ends April 30, is a proposal to hold a wild horse gathering on the Adobe Town, Salt Wells Creek, Great Divide Basin, White Mountain and Little Colorado HMAs.
The environmental assessment proposes the removal of approximately 3,500 horses across the five HMAs. Non-permanent fertility control treatments would also be implemented.
The appropriate management level (AML) for the five HMAs is between 1,550-2,165 horses. The BLM estimates that there are approximately 5,105 wild horses currently within the five HMAs.
In Nevada, the Senate Committee on Natural Resources is reviewing a measure that urges Congress to provide a steady stream of short-term and long-term funding to reduce the wild horse and burro populations back to appropriate management levels. If passed, funding would be allocated toward further helicopter roundups of wild horses and burros.
“We don’t need to change policy, we simply need to implement policy,” said Sherman Swanson, an emeritus professor of rangeland ecology at the University of Nevada Reno and a representative, for the Coalition for Healthy Nevada Lands, Wildlife and Free-Roaming Horses.
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