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: Bundy lawsuit addresses public land ownership

A civil lawsuit filed on behalf of Bunkerville rancher Cliven Bundy in state district court asks the court to declare that the public land on which Bundy grazes his cattle is owned by Nevada and Clark County, not the federal government.

The chances of success are most likely slim and none, but the suit raises some salient points about the power of the federal bureaucracy to hold sway over more than 85 percent of the land in Nevada.

Bundy and his sons are notorious for the 2014 armed standoff with Bureau of Land Management agents who attempted to confiscate his cattle for his failure to pay $1 million in grazing fees and fines over two decades. Federal criminal charges against the remaining defendants in that case were dismissed when the judge ruled the prosecution failed to turn over potentially exculpatory evidence to the defendants.

Cliven Bundy (R-J pix)

The civil lawsuit — drafted by Larry Klayman, often described as an activist right-wing lawyer and founder of Judicial Watch, and Craig Mueller, who earlier this year lost a primary bid for attorney general — cites court cases, U.S. and Nevada constitutional history, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in which Mexico ceded much of the West to the United States and legislative proclamations.

The suit notes the state Legislature has never consented to allow the U.S. government to own more than 85 percent of the land within the state’s borders.

When the Constitution was being drafted James Madison raised concerns about giving Congress too much power to purchase land in the states, saying “that this power might be made use of to enslave any particular state by buying up its territory, and that the strongholds proposed would be a means of awing the state into an undue obedience to the general government.”

Constitutional Convention delegate Rufus King moved to add the phrase “by consent of the legislature of the state” to the section that mentioned the federal government owning forts, docks and “other needful Buildings.” It passed unanimously. With the exception of the Nevada Test Site, few of the federal land holdings in Nevada have been with the consent of the Legislature.

Bundy’s suit further explains the intent of a section of the Nevada Constitution known as the Disclaimer Clause that said the state does “forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within said territory, and that the same shall be and remain at the sole and entire disposition of the United States.”

Klayman and Mueller write, “The intent of the Territorial Legislature was not to ceed (sic) the land to the US Government ‘forever’, but to clear title of all unappropriated lands within the Territory so U.S. Congress could dispose of the lands to the State of Nevada.”

Which is probably why the admission document promised 5 percent of the proceeds to Nevada when land would be “sold by the United States subsequent to the admission of said state into the Union …”

In fact, though the suit doesn’t mention it, that so-called Disclaimer Clause was repealed by the voters in 1996, “effective on the date Congress consents to amendment or a legal determination is made that such consent is not necessary …” Might the court make such a legal determination? Doubtful.

The lawsuit also mentions a section of Nevada Revised Statutes 321 that declared, “The State of Nevada has a legal claim to the public land retained by the Federal Government within Nevada’s borders because: … The intent of the framers of the Constitution of the United States was to guarantee to each of the states sovereignty over all matters within its boundaries except for those powers specifically granted to the United States as agent of the states. … The purported right of ownership and control of the public lands within the State of Nevada by the United States is without foundation and violates the clear intent of the Constitution of the United States.”

Not only has the Legislature not consented, it has vehemently protested.

The lawsuit points out on four occasions that the Bundy ranch has been in existence for 141 years, during which it has held water, grazing and property rights, adding that Bundy “has suffered substantial injury, as his cattle are his only source of income … (and) is entitled to declaratory judgment that the lands upon which he and his family have conducted its ranching, The Bundy Ranch, for generations is property belonging to the People of Nevada and its subdivision, Clark County …”

The suit raises some serious questions.

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: Now is your chance to speak up on Little Ash Springs

Little Ash Springs as seen through the wrought iron fence from neighboring private property. (Mitchell pix)

Five years ago the Bureau of Land Management locked the gate to Little Ash Springs north of Alamo on Highway 93 in Lincoln County, saying it would take a couple of weeks to repair a man-made soaking pool on the 1-acre popular hot springs recreation area. The closure was for public safety concerns lest the walls of the pool collapse and injure or even kill someone.

This past week the BLM released an Environmental Assessment outlining five alternatives for the site and opening a public comment period that will last through Aug. 20.

The alternatives range from an elaborate and extensive construction of amenities and facilities on the site, along with personnel to manage the crowds and collect fees, proposed by a group calling themselves Friends of Pahranagat Valley, to doing nothing and keeping the site closed and largely as is.

The BLM’s “proposed action” would include repairs to or reconstruction of the damaged soaking pool, and expanding on four acres to the north for parking, day use area, restrooms, picnic areas, shade structures, walkways, and informational kiosks. The BLM would monitor the downstream water to ensure compliance with Nevada water quality standards.

Another alternative proposes to remove the soaker pool and allow only land-based uses such as picnic areas and walkways. Still another alternative is to return the site to its original natural state and close it to any recreational uses.

Of those five alternatives the BML reported all comply with the district’s goals and objectives, except the one proposed by the Friends group.

According to the BLM assessment, the Ash Springs complex had been a local “swimming hole” for years, but the original recreational site was actually on adjacent private property now referred to as Big Ash Springs, a 13-acre tract of private land and hot springs now owned by Joe and Andrea Barker.

Big Ash Springs was once open to the public and had swimming, a water slide and RV parking. In the 1990s, when the previous owners of Big Ash closed and fenced off their private property, the BLM developed Little Ash Springs for public access, building the soaking pool around the year 2000 and installing toilets, picnic tables, trash cans, cooking grills and parking.

By the time the BLM closed Little Ash in 2013 the site had grown in popularity until on some weekends as many as 100 people would be in the tiny soaking pool at once, according to the BLM.

There were also problems with vandalism, trash, graffiti, broken glass, excessively loud music, drug and alcohol use, as well as water pollution that threatened endangered fish species downstream.

The assessment speculates that the Little Ash reopening could benefit the local economy, especially if the Barkers or others decide to develop recreational opportunities on adjacent private property.

“Should the adjacent property be developed in conjunction with the recreational use at Ash Springs, it can be expected that Alamo and the nearby communities would see an increase in visitation,” the BLM suggests. “The impacts of higher visitation could include increased spending and economic growth, increased traffic, job opportunities, and either a higher or lower sense of community pride about the springs.”

Of course, there is also the possibility the local taxpayers might have to increase spending on law enforcement.

The assessment, along with appendices, maps, photos and details about commenting on the proposal are available online at:

https://eplanning.blm.gov/epl-front-office/eplanning/planAndProjectSite.do?methodName=dispatchToPatternPage&currentPageId=146050

Written comments may be sent to the BLM Caliente Field Office, P.O. Box 237, Caliente, NV 89008, Attn: 2018 Ash Springs. Comments also may be submitted electronically with the subject, “ATTN: Ash Springs” to blm_nv_ash_springs@blm.gov. Deadline is Aug. 20.

The Caliente Field Office of the BLM’s Ely District will host an open house to discuss the Environmental Assessment from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 8, in the Pahranagat Valley High School multipurpose room at 151 S. Main St. in Alamo.

The BLM is not a recreational agency and its past lack of management at Little Ash raises questions about its ability to do so in the future. The BLM is not known for its attentiveness to public input, but this is our opportunity to have a say on what will become of this site. Speak now or …

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.

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.

How to slake the thirst of future development?

R-J graphic showing proposed land use changes.

Sometimes a story is most noteworthy for what it doesn’t say.

The morning newspaper reported on how the Southern Nevada Water Authority plans to supply water to a 39,000-acre tract of private development mostly south of Henderson should the federal government agree to release the land. The plan is to use conservation and recycling of water from Lake Mead.

Not one word was mentioned about piping groundwater from Lincoln, Nye and White Pine counties. The current plan is to pump 84,000 acre-feet of groundwater a year to Las Vegas at a cost of $15 billion for the infrastructure alone.

A year ago a federal judge heard arguments from proponents and opponents of the proposed project, which was first broached in 1989.

The judge refused to halt the project but ruled that the Bureau of Land Management must conduct further environmental review of the effects of the project and identify what can be done to mitigate them. According to an AP account, the judge characterized the fixes he ordered as “narrow deficiencies” in environmental impact statements.

Both sides interpreted the ruling as favorable to their side.

But today’s news story on supplying water to the proposed private development makes no mention of the groundwater from the north, even though the valley has maxed out its 300,000 acre-foot annual allotment from Lake Mead.

“The one-page document calls on far-flung developments to discourage or outright ban things like man-made lakes, water-cooled power plants and decorative turf,” the story relates. “Those developments should return their treated wastewater to Lake Mead whenever feasible or reuse enough of it on-site to ‘displace the need for SNWA water resources,’ the policy states.”

Protesters oppose Clark County taking rural Nevada groundwater.

Editorial: BLM publishes new plans to protect sage grouse

A greater sage grouse male struts for a female. (Pix by Jeannie Stafford for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The Bureau of Land Management under the Trump administration has followed through on its promise to give states greater flexibility on protecting greater sage grouse. On Friday a 204-page draft management plan for Nevada and northeastern California was published in the Federal Register.

The plan specifically states that its purpose is to enhance cooperation with the states by modifying sage grouse management to better align with the plans created by Nevada and California, covering more than 45 million acres under the jurisdiction of the BLM.

Though it was determined that sage grouse did not qualify for protection under the Endangered Species Act, in 2015 the Obama administration violated the law and ignored scientific evidence when it concocted a 341-page pronouncement that 10 million acres of public land in 16 Western states — nearly a third of that in Nevada — would be taken out of consideration for future mining claims, as well as oil and gas drilling near breeding grounds and that there would be additional reviews on grazing permits. The plan envisioned restrictions on grazing, resource development, solar and wind energy, and public access to public land in Nevada.

According to a press release put out by the BLM announcing the new plans, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval welcomed the more cooperative stance by the agency. “I look forward to reviewing the draft Environmental Impact Statement and I trust that the Department of the Interior will continue to engage with and value the opinions of the impacted western governors,” Sandoval was quoted as saying. “I am confident we can find success by working together.”

Nevada’s senior U.S. Sen. Dean Heller was quoted as saying, “The Department of the Interior’s proposed changes represent an important step toward returning power back to our local communities, and lifting the Obama Administration’s heavy-handed regulations that have put major restrictions on millions of acres of land in Nevada and stifled economic opportunities.”

Congressman Mark Amodei, who represents northern Nevada, commented, “I would like to thank the secretary for doing a much-needed revisit of the previous administration’s policies regarding sage hen habitat. I look forward to hearing back from our stakeholders in Nevada regarding the proposed changes and plan to familiarize myself with this draft and provide further input.”

The publication of the draft plan opens a public comment period. The BLM will accept comments through Aug. 2. Comments may be submitted by mail:  BLM – Greater Sage-Grouse EIS, Nevada State Office, 1340 Financial Blvd., Reno, NV 89502; or online at https://goo.gl/uz89cT.

The Nevada-California plan is posted online at: https://eplanning.blm.gov/epl-front-office/projects/lup/103343/143703/176904/NVCA_GRSG_DEIS_201805_508.pdf

The BLM also will conduct public meetings during the public comment period, which will be announced later.

The agency expects to publish a final Environmental Impact Statement and plan amendments by October.

Nevada’s BLM Associate State Director Marci Todd stated, “Two important developments have occurred since the 2015 plans were adopted. First, we’ve had two to three years to invest time and effort into improving sage grouse habitat. Second, we have received a great deal of feedback from our state partners about how the plans are working on the ground and needed changes.”

We welcome the fact that someone in the federal land bureaucracy is finally listening and recognizing the fact that people need to earn a livelihood in rural Nevada and can do so without endangering the sage grouse population.

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.