Newspaper column: Groups try to thwart wild horse experiment

It worked during the Obama administration, but will it work with the Trump administration?

A gaggle of self-styled wild horse advocate groups have filed lawsuits in Washington, D.C., and Portland, Ore., demanding that the Bureau of Land Management abandon plans to spay 100 wild mares in an experiment to help determine a better mechanism for curtailing the ongoing overpopulation on the range. The groups claim the surgical sterilization is dangerous, barbaric and inhumane.

In 2016, a similar project was abandoned by the BLM when some of the same groups filed lawsuits. At that time the BLM intended to partner with Oregon State University, but the university backed out in the face of protests. This time the BLM planned to link up with Colorado State University, but that school has already backed out.

In mid-September the BLM announced plans to use helicopters to round up 650 excess wild horses this month from the Warm Springs Herd Management Area near Hines, Ore., and to initiate research on the effects of spaying mares and returning them to the range. The area has a horse population of about 800 but can support less than 200 animals.

Horses removed from the range are to be sent to Oregon’s Wild Horse Corral Facility in Hines. Some will be put up for adoption and others selected for participation in the spay and behavior research.

The BLM press release announcing the plans stated, “The public is welcome to view the Warm Springs HMA gather and spay procedures.”

But one of the grounds cited in the lawsuits — filed by Front Range Equine Rescue, the American Wild Horse Campaign, the Cloud Foundation, the Animal Welfare Institute and others — is that the project violates the First Amendment, because outside groups are not adequately allowed to observe and record the surgery.

“To date, the BLM has refused to allow a meaningful opportunity for media or the public to observe and record these procedures,” said Nick Lawton, a lawyer for one of the groups. “The BLM’s refusal to allow meaningful access to observe and record these experiments thwarts the important newsgathering objectives that Plaintiffs aim to achieve by observing and documenting the BLM’s treatment of wild horses, and thus violates Plaintiffs’ rights under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”

The groups also claim the spaying method — called ovariectomy via colpotomy, in which a veterinarian reaches into a mares’ abdomen through an incision and severs and extracts the ovaries — is “unscientific, inhumane and dangerous, and will result in pain, suffering and potentially life-threatening complications for wild mares.” They claim this violates the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

The BLM spends $50 million a year, or 60 percent of its annual budget for handling wild horses and burros, warehousing 46,000 of them in corrals and private pastures, while there are 83,000 wild horses and burros on a range that can adequately sustain no more than 27,000.

In a report to Congress earlier this year the BLM explained the problem and offered different options: “Wild horses and burros have no natural predators and herds can double in size every 4 years. As herd sizes increase, the forage and water resources from the land become depleted, resulting in starvation, dehydration, and death. In their search for food and water, the animals often move onto private land or along highways resulting in safety issues and habitat destruction for horses and humans alike. Public-land ranchers have cut back on grazing to accommodate increasing numbers of wild horses and burros.”

The report noted that overpopulation of these non-native animals is degrading the ecosystem and crowding out native greater sage grouse, pronghorn, deer, elk and bighorn sheep.

According to a CNN account, two of the groups involved — Front Range Equine Rescue and the American Wild Horse Campaign — have called for using an injectable birth control vaccine called Porcine Zona Pellucida (PZP) instead of surgery.

But surgery renders the mare sterile for the rest of its life, which can be as much as 25 years, while PZP must be administered every one to two years and requires more frequent captures of the horses, which can lead to injuries. The BLM is already experimenting with PZP.

The animal advocate groups are really making huge assumptions about what is best for the animals. Until the experiment is performed it is impossible to say what is best for the horses. Let’s hope the BLM doesn’t back down again in the face of litigation.

Thomas Mitchell is a longtime Nevada newspaper columnist. You may email him at thomasmnv@yahoo.com. He also blogs at https://4thst8.wordpress.com/.

CNN pix

Newspaper column: BLM rule change doesn’t signal wild horse slaughter

Wild horses being affected by drought. (AP pix)

Wild horse advocates are apoplectic over a change in rules for selling off wild horses recently announced by the Trump administration’s Bureau of Land Management, saying it could lead to the animals being sold for slaughter.

In 2013, after learning that Colorado rancher Tom Davis, a friend and neighbor of then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, had over a three-year period sold 1,800 wild horses he had purchased from the BLM for slaughter in Mexico, the BLM instituted a rule that no one could purchase more than four wild horses in a six-month period without approval of the agency’s deputy assistant director of resource and planning.

In May, the BLM issued new guidelines saying up to 25 wild horses could be sold without prior approval up the chain of command.

“The federal government is about to resume selling America’s cherished wild horses and burros by the truckload, sending potentially thousands of mustangs into the slaughter pipeline against the wishes of 80 percent of Americans,” fulminated Suzanne Roy, executive director of the American Wild Horse Campaign (AWHC) in a press release this past week. “This Administration appears hellbent on destroying America’s iconic wild horse and burro herds, and this is the latest step on that path to destruction.”

Pay no heed to the fact the BLM spends 60 percent of its annual budget for handling wild horses and burros on warehousing 46,000 of them in corrals and private pastures, while there are 83,000 wild horses and burros on a range that can adequately sustain no more than 27,000. Nor to the fact that earlier this year BLM officials desperate to rid themselves of the expense of feeding all those “wild” animals were contemplating offering $1,000 incentives to anyone willing to take some off their hands.

An Interior Department inspector general report in 2015 found that Davis over three years bought truckloads of 35 horses at a time for $10 each and sold them to others who took them to Mexico for slaughter. Davis made up to $3,000 profit per truckload. The case was referred to federal and local prosecutors who declined to prosecute, criminally or civilly.

Davis told inspectors that BLM officials had to know so many horses were going to slaughter.

Congress for years has effectively banned the slaughter of horses for meat in the U.S. by denying funding for health inspectors.

The new BLM guidelines for selling wild horses say untrained animals may be sold for as little as $25 apiece, while horses trained to halter or saddle must fetch $125. Purchasers also must provide adequate feed, care and a facility, such as a corral, barn or stall.

Applicants also must swear that the animals are not intended for “slaughter or bucking stock, or for processing into commercial products …”

Though the limiting of sales to only four horses at a time appears to have not been financially conducive to either buyers or taxpayers, and despite the lessons learned from the Davis probe, AWHC’s Roy forecasts doom and gloom will result from the change in rules.

“When you’re selling horses by the truckload for $25 apiece, it provides a big incentive for slaughter,” Roy was quoted in her press release. “Since riding a horse to his first day of work, Interior Secretary Zinke has galloped down a deadly path for America’s wild horse and burro herds – from asking Congress for permission to slaughter tens of thousands of these cherished animals to promoting the mass surgical sterilization of mustangs and burros on the range. Zinke is pushing the livestock industry agenda to rid our public lands of wild horses and trampling on the wishes of American citizens in the process.”

In a recent interview, Nevada’s senior U.S. Senator Dean Heller said he has spoken with Zinke and a middle ground on this matter is being sought.

“Zinke assured me he’s looking at this issue. They’re looking at a number of different avenues how they can cull these herds without, frankly, having to remove some of these horses from the range, but they do believe they can put together a sterilization program and something that in five to 10 years can reduce the size of these herds,” Heller said. “There is a discussion out there. These discussions are being had — looking for a reasonable, reasonable answers to this, and trying to come up with a program or a process that both sides can agree on.”

When it comes to the taxpayers being on the hook to try to preserve non-native species in perpetuity, all means should be stoically explored.

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

Editorial: BLM should fight wild horse suit this time

A recent BLM wild horse roundup. (BLM pix)

The usual suspects are at it again, filing a federal lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia demanding the court halt a plan by the Bureau of Land Management to remove all the feral horses in a 40-mile radius around Caliente.

The American Wild Horse Campaign, Western Watershed Project, The Cloud Foundation and a Beatty outdoor enthusiast are suing the BLM, saying it failed to adequately document and support its roundup decision, though what would ever be adequate for them is difficult to say.

Some of the same plaintiffs brought a similar lawsuit in 2011 over a planned removal of wild horses from Jakes Wash west of Ely, but the suit was mooted when the BLM backed down rather fight the matter.

In 2009 there were only 270 wild horses in the 900,000-acre Caliente area, but a year ago there were more than 1,700, a number the BLM deems unsustainable.

Plaintiffs consider their desire to be able to see “iconic” feral horses as more important than the livelihoods of ranchers who graze 4,500 head of cattle and sheep in the area.

One of the plaintiffs explained in the lawsuit, “The members of The Cloud Foundation enjoy viewing, studying, photographing, and filming wild horses in their natural habitats, free from human interference. The Cloud Foundation’s members travel to various areas, including public lands in Nevada, specifically for the purpose of viewing wild horses.”

The suit says of the Beatty resident that she “enjoys camping, hiking, birdwatching, and observing the flora and fauna. She also engages in photography and field sketching as hobbies, and particularly enjoys viewing, photographing, and sketching the wild horses that roam in the basins and on the ranges of Nevada.”

Isn’t that special?

Suzanne Roy, executive director of the American Wild Horse Campaign, told the Las Vegas newspaper, “It’s time for the BLM to stop prioritizing ranching special interests and start honoring the wishes of Americans to ensure that our iconic mustangs are protected and humanely managed on our public lands.”

BLM officials say they can’t comment on pending litigation.

The BLM plan is to gather the horses for up to 10 years in the Caliente Herd Area Complex, which consists of nine Herd Areas — Applewhite, Blue Nose Peak, Clover Creek, Clover Mountains, Delamar Mountains, Little Mountain, Meadow Valley Mountains, Miller Flat and Mormon Mountains.

The public notice of the plan said the removal is “needed to improve watershed health and make significant progress towards achieving range health standards recommended by the BLM’s Mojave / Southern Great Basin Resource Advisory Council. The proposed gather plan would allow for an initial gather with follow-up gathers for up to 10 years from the date of the initial gather. The plan calls for transporting gathered horses to holding facilities where they would be offered for adoption.”

The agency said the Caliente Herd Area Complex is not designated for wild horses due to insufficient forage and water resources.

The BLM manages more than 245 million acres of public land in the West. Economic activity on that land generated $75 billion in 2016 and supported more than 372,000 jobs.

But the lawsuit ignores that aspect of land use and instead claims the BLM permits grazing on the same public lands by thousands of cattle and sheep that, unlike wild horses, are not an “integral part of the natural system of the public lands,” though feral horses are not native and have few natural predators to keep the herds from overbreeding and depleting limited water and grazing resources that leads to starvation of the very animals they claim to want to protect.

The BLM should not cave in this time and fight to preserve a balanced multiple use of the land and seek to have the court assess the plaintiffs for all costs involved.

A version of this editorial appeared this week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel,  Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.

Editorial: Wild horse issue needs a compromise solution

Let the caterwauling continue.

The headline over a press release by a group calling itself the American Wild Horse Campaign reads, “80+ Organizations Oppose Trump Administration Plan to Slaughter America’s Mustangs.”

The trigger for the press release — more a fundraising appeal than legitimate polemic — was the release of the Interior Department’s FY2019 budget.

The budget includes this language: “The 2019 budget continues to propose the elimination of appropriations language restricting BLM’s use of all of the management options authorized in the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act. This change will provide BLM with the full suite of tools to manage the unsustainable growth of wild horse and burro herds.”

Similar language was in the FY2018 budget, which has yet to be approved.

Wild horses being warehoused at Palomino Valley near Reno. (Jo Mitchell pix)

You see, the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act states: “The Secretary shall cause additional excess wild free-roaming horses and burros for which an adoption demand by qualified individuals does not exist to be destroyed in the most humane and cost efficient manner possible.”

But every federal budget since 2009, has stated, “Appropriations herein made shall not be available for the destruction of healthy, unadopted, wild horses and burros in the care of the Bureau or its contractors or for the sale of wild horses and burros that results in their destruction for processing into commercial products.”

Suzanne Roy, executive director of the American Wild Horse Campaign, was quoted as saying in the press release: “Americans want our wild horses and burros protected, not brutally killed and slaughtered.”

Roy was further quoted as saying the horse advocacy groups support a humane and scientific path for wild horse management.

Yet when the Elko district of the Bureau of Land Management submitted a plan to control the wild horse population with fertility control and gathers without ever mentioning euthanizing excess horses, one of those advocacy groups sued saying such action upset the “social organization, band integrity, and expression of a natural behavior repertoire.”

Though wild horses are dying of starvation and thirst on the depleted and drought-stricken range, the self-styled advocates offer only litigation and wild claims. Letting the status quo continue is hardly humane.

When this issue came up in the House Appropriations Committee a year ago Nevada Republican Rep. Mark Amodei, who supported a return to the language in the 1971 law, said during debate, “First let me say I hate this issue and I think everybody here hates this issue. The reality is we have a problem. We have to face it and we have to deal with it. … You think you’re being kind to horses? You’re not. Letting them starve out on the range? … Nobody’s adopting these things — these horses. Not very many people anyway.”

According to the BLM, if nothing is done, by 2020 there will be 130,000 wild horses and burros on BLM-controlled lands, though the range can sustain only 27,000.

That doesn’t count the 45,000 formerly wild horses and burros currently being kept in off-range pens and pastures at a cost of $50 million a year.

In is unlikely Congress will ever approve the wholesale slaughter of wild horses, but there should be a middle ground compromise that handles horses humanely, saves taxpayers money and protects the range, wildlife and agricultural interests.

A version of this editorial appeared this week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel,  Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.