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.

Newspaper column: BLM calculates costs of wild horse options

The Bureau of Land Management sent to Congress late this past week a report outlining four options for reducing the wild horse and burro population in 10 Western states to sustainable levels.

Only one of the four options includes the use of euthanasia, but that was enough to give the self-styled wild horse lovers palpitations.

“The BLM today released a roadmap for destruction of America’s wild free-roaming horse and burros by virtually eradicating their populations on our Western public lands,” Suzanne Roy, executive director of the American Wild Horse Campaign, fired off in a press release. “The agency has failed to deliver the ‘humane and politically viable’ options requested by Congress, and instead has devised an irresponsible plan that is counter to public opinion …”

The BLM report noted that there now are 83,000 wild horses and burros on a range that it says can adequately sustain no more than 26,715 such animals. In addition there are another 46,000 unadopted animals being warehoused in pens and holding pastures. The cost of maintaining those no-longer wild horses and burros drains 60 percent of the agency’s current $81 million annual budget for handling the animals.

Though the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act called for unadoptable animals to be sold without restriction or humanely destroyed, Congress for the past decade has used budget riders to prohibit that.

“Wild horses and burros have no natural predators and herds can double in size every 4 years,” the BLM report to Congress states. “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.

Three of the four options outlined by the BLM largely would require extensive use of fertility drugs and surgical sterilization. All at considerable cost to the taxpayers.

One of those options is estimated to cost $116 million in the next budget year, increasing to $246 million by the 2027 budget, after which cost would be expected to slowly decrease.

Another option is expected to cost $133 million a year, increasing to $147 million by 2023.

Still another would cost  $135 million in next year and increase to $143 million in 2023.

Two of the options would offer monetary incentives of up to $1,000 to those who adopt these animals.

Of course, the cheapest option is the one that includes euthanasia, as well as fertility control, sterilization and adoptions. It would cost $115 million a year through 2021, dropping each year thereafter. Once a sustainable population is reached in eight years, the cost would drop to $65 million a year.

At a September 2016 meeting in Elko the BLM’s National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board — which consists of veterinarians, natural resource organizations, humane advocacy groups, wildlife associations, livestock organizations and others — recommended the BLM sell without restrictions on eventual use of the animals all the wild horses and burros being warehoused. Any unsold animals would then be humanely destroyed.

The BLM in its report to Congress did not suggest which of the listed options it favored. But Congress should, for a change, consider the expense to the taxpayers instead of attempting to mollify the hysterical horse-hugger groups who claim the BLM is calling for the “mass killing or sale for slaughter of 100,000 mustangs and burros, including those currently in holding facilities and those who would be removed from the range.”

The BLM report naively concludes, “In each of the four options addressed above, the BLM will need the help of all stakeholders – Congress, livestock operators, state and local governments, and public interest organizations – to solve the wild horse and burro overpopulation challenge. The BLM looks forward to working with Congress and other interested parties on common sense solutions and will continue to pursue collaboration where possible. We request that Congress examine each of the options and advise on which of the tools it deems most suitable for addressing this urgent challenge.”

Common sense solutions? Collaboration? Don’t count on it.

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.

Earlier this week more than 100 wild horses were found dead in a dried up stock pond on the Navajo Nation near Cameron, Ariz., apparently after getting trapped in the mud. (Photo by Mihio Manus/Navajo Nation via AP)

 

Editorial: No solution for wild horse overpopulation in budget

The wild horse can has been kicked down the road yet again.

Congress could not possibly find a way in its 2,232-page, $1.3 trillion budget that President Trump signed a couple of weeks ago to do anything whatsoever about the overpopulation of wild horses.

The Interior Department’s FY2019 budget at one time included 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.”

Among those tools could have been the humane slaughter of sick and unadoptable wild horses and burros that are starving on the overgrazed range in the West. That was the intent of the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act, but every federal budget since 2009 has prohibited this commonsense approach.

So we are stuck with spending $50 million a year to warehouse 46,000 “wild” horses in pens and pastures, while 73,000 roam free on grazing land that can sustain only 27,000 animals. The main population reduction method left for the federal land agencies is adoption. According to The Washington Post only 3,500 wild horses were adopted in 2017.

“We are thrilled that Congress has rejected this sick horse slaughter plan,” the Post quoted Marilyn Kroplick, president of the animal rights group In Defense of Animals, as saying in a statement that claimed horse lovers had “jammed Congressional phone lines with calls and sent tens of thousands of emails” to make their case.

On the other hand, in the real world, Utah Republican Rep. Chris Stewart in an op-ed in The New York Times in December, cited an example of the conditions on the ground, noting that in 2015 the Bureau of Land Management sent agents into the desert outside Las Vegas to round up about 200 wild horses that were reported to be starving to death.

“Bureau employees discovered nearly 500 horses,” Stewart wrote. “They had pounded their range to powder; the desert grasses that remained had been eaten to the nubs. Nearly 30 were in such poor condition they had to be euthanized, and many others were on the brink of death.”

The BLM had determined that the 100,000-acre expanse where these horses were grazing produced only enough grasses and water to sustain 70 horses, the congressman concluded.

Stewart advocated euthanizing excess horses. “I understand that some will recoil from this approach. But anyone who really cares about these majestic animals must understand that other efforts have failed to curb their exploding population and that culling these herds to numbers the land can sustain is the best way to prevent further suffering and death,” he concluded.

According to the BLM, if nothing is done, by 2020 there will be 130,000 feral horses and burros on BLM-controlled lands, still starving and dying of thirst and crowding out other species and competing with cattle and sheep for forage.

The BLM canceled a meeting of its National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board scheduled for late March in Salt Lake City when a member objected to using a 15-day public notice for “urgent matters,” instead of the customary 30 days. The terms of three board members expired on March 31. Another meeting will be scheduled once new members are seated.

That may be a futile gesture. At a 2016 meeting in Elko the advisory panel recommended “offering all suitable animals in long- and short-term holding deemed unadoptable, for sale without limitation or humane euthanasia.” The recommendation was ignored.

Meanwhile, nothing is being done to the relieve the suffering of feral horses.

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.

Editorial: Suit to block feral horse plan is frivolous

‘Wild’ horses being held in pens. (BLM pix)

As sure as hogs wallow in slop, one month after the Bureau of Land Management announced a plan to properly control the population of feral horses on a nearly 4 million-acre tract of land 50 miles southeast of Elko, a New York nonprofit group calling itself Friends of Animals filed a federal lawsuit. (Friends of Animals suit)

The lawsuit claims the BLM gave “no opportunity for the public to review or comment on its decision” and thus violated its own procedures and requirements of federal law. Actually, the suit merely tries to throw overheated rhetoric at a decision with which the Friends of Animals disagree.

In December the BLM outlined a 10-year plan to control the population of mustangs in the Antelope, Antelope Valley, Goshute, Maverick-Medicine, Spruce-Pequop and Triple B Herd Management Areas, plus another million acres onto which the horses have spread. The area currently has 9,500 horses, 11 times more than the low estimate for what the forage and water can support, about 900 horses.

The plan is to gather and remove some excess horses and control the remaining population with castration of some males and chemical fertility control of some females. The goal is to establish stable herds of about 60 percent male and 40 percent female.

There are already about 45,000 “wild” horses being held in storage pens across the West at a cost of $50 million a year.

The Friends suit claims an Environmental Impact Statement is required for all “major Federal actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment.”

But the “Decision Record” signed by Elko District BLM Manager Jill Silvey clearly states that following “public review” she found the plan “will not have a significant impact to the human environment, and that the Environmental Impact Statement is not required.” This is backed up by a 361-page Environmental Assessment and a four-page Finding of No Significant Impact.

Though the federal lawsuit claims there was a lack of public overview, it states there were 4,940 comments submitted to the BLM during a public comment period.

Silvey’s decision notes, “The BLM received over 4,940 comment submissions during the public comment period; the majority of those submissions (more than 4,780 or 97%) were form letters. Form letters are generated from a singular website from a non-governmental organization, such as an animal advocacy group. Comments identified on form letters were considered along with the rest of the comments received, but as one collective letter. … Letters and e-mails were received both in support of and in opposition to the gather.”

The lawsuit wonders all over the legal rangeland, ruminating about the impact of sterilization on social behavior in herds.

It spouts such pseudo-scientific folderol as this: “A potential disadvantage of both surgical and chemical castration is loss of testosterone and consequent reduction in or complete loss of male-type behaviors necessary for maintenance of social organization, band integrity, and expression of a natural behavior repertoire.”

But the lawsuit fails to ever address the fact the feral horses are currently starving and dying of thirst due to their excess numbers, much less their impact on wildlife, ranching and recreation.

The suit demands that the court block the population control plan, and, of course, seeks for themselves “reasonable costs, litigation expenses, and attorneys’ fees.”

Meanwhile, the BLM argues, “A gather of wild horses from the area is also necessary to prevent continued degradation of rangeland resources, and the unnecessary death or suffering of individual wild horses that are being currently impacted by a lack of water and forage. The BLM is required to manage multiple uses to avoid continued degradation of the rangeland, and reduce the potential for catastrophic loss of animals.”

The courts should let the BLM try its management plan for a couple of years and hear the horse huggers’ suit later if it is not working. Doing nothing while the litigation languishes is not an option.

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.