Wild Horses Are (Again) Losing Their Home on the Range

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America's wild horses are in trouble, and the federal government isn't helping

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Rachel Reeves


Why did this animal that had prospered so in the Colorado desert leave his amiable homeland for Siberia? There is no answer. We know that when the horse negotiated the land bridge... he found on the other end an opportunity for varied development that is one of the bright aspects of animal history. He wandered into France and became the mighty Percheron, and into Arabia, where he developed into a lovely poem of a horse, and into Africa where he became the brilliant zebra, and into Scotland, where he bred selectively to form the massive Clydesdale. He would also journey into Spain, where his very name would become the designation for gentleman, a caballero, a man of the horse. There he would flourish mightily and serve the armies that would conquer much of the known world.

-- James Michener

It's been a hot, stormy summer on the Red Desert range in southern Wyoming, around Rock Springs and the state's southern boundary with Colorado, where Interstate 80 takes long-haul truckers and tourists through one of America's least hospitable landscapes. The desolate land even includes Sweetwater County, one of those romantic cowboyesque names that mockingly crop up from place to place in the Rocky Mountain West, more an aspiration than a reality when you consider that there isn't much water there and what there is isn't so sweet.

In this forlorn place are two "herd management areas" called "White Mountain" and "Little Colorado," places were some of America's wild horses roam free pursuant to federal rule and regulation. According to Bureau of Land Management statistics, the federal government owns or controls 849,033 acres of land in the area, Wyoming owns another 15,877 acres, and private entities own 149,647 more. BLM officials estimate that, after the 2011 foaling season, there are approximately 970 wild horses on White Mountain and Little Colorado lands.

If you do the math, based only upon the federal land figure, it comes to 875.29 acres per horse. Do a little more math and you learn that 875 acres equals approximately 1.37 square miles. Ask any horse owner you know if she could get by on that horse-to-land ratio and the answer is an immediate and emphatic "Yes!" At first glance, it seems like a perfectly harmonic arrangement; our nation's wild horses peaceably tending to our nation's less desirable lands out of the way of most human traffic. The symbol of our nation's history and growth simply left alone to graze land most of us would never see if we were to live a hundred lifetimes.

But alas it's a lot more complicated than that. Intertwined private ownership of lands within the management areas, differing land-use priorities, a lack of bureaucratic courage and creativity, and a 30-year-old deal between ranchers and a long-gone horse group, all have eliminated the possibility of simply working the acreage numbers for the benefit of the horses. The herd areas themselves are part of a "checkerboard" pattern of public and private land (the ratio is close to 50-50, say ranchers) and the horses themselves haven't helped their own cause. During the winter, they often migrate from public land onto private land, where they are considered a nuisance to some property owners.

This natural pattern has persisted for generations and it's been closely monitored by the feds for at least the past 30 years. With this history, geography, and horse biology in mind, the BLM announced last month that there were, again, too many wild horses on the two Wyoming ranges. Wildlife officials now plan in mid-August to begin to cull roughly 70 percent of the herds out of Little Colorado and White Mountain in a particularly controversial way. And, in response, wild horse advocacy groups and others filed a federal lawsuit Monday in Washington, D.C. seeking a restraining order that would halt the roundup.

All the time and all over the West, horse advocacy groups battle the federal government over the fate of wild horses. The story is almost always the same. The "horse lobby" cannot compete politically (i.e. financially) with the cattle or ranching industries. Invariably, it's the wild horses which lose out to the cattle or to the sheep or to other business interests. And invariably, its the federal government, acting through regulators who are captive to the industries they are supposed to regulate, which helps ensure that this occurs. In this case, for example, we see the federal agency responsible for protecting wild horses struggling to justify a decision that undoubtedly will harm a great many of those horses and, indeed, the future of those herds. 

Sell the cow, buy the sheep, but never be without the horse. -- Irish Proverb  

On June 14th, the BLM announced a plan to remove all of the wild horses on Little Colorado and White Mountain and to then return a small number of castrated or spayed horses to the range. Here is how the Bureau describes how the roundup occurs:

Multiple capture sites (traps) would be used to capture wild horses within the White Mountain and Little Colorado HMAs... Capture techniques would include the helicopter-drive trapping method and/or helicopter-roping from horseback. Bait trapping may also be utilized on a limited basis, as needed.

(These roundups can be so disturbing that they warrant their own treatment in a future article. I will try to get to it later this summer). Just one week later, however, under heavy fire from mortified advocacy groups, the Bureau partially changed its tune. It increased the number of horses that would be returned to the lands and decided not to spay the mares. Still, nearly 700 of 970 or so horses now on the Little Colorado and White Mountain range will soon be gone if the BLM gets its way. Here's how Interior Department officials described their new plan:

This modified decision returns about 177 geldings to the two HMAs to reach appropriate management level (AML). AML is the point at which the herd's population is consistent with the land's capacity to support wild horses in balance with other public rangeland uses and resources. The projected wild horse population remaining on the range following the gather would be about 205 in the White Mountain HMA and about 69 in the Little Colorado HMA.

There is no evidence that the horses are harming each other. And no factual detail about how their population has created an "imbalance" upon the vast range lands. Instead, Lance Porter, Field Manager at the Rock Springs office of the BLM, justified the "modified" decision" by writing that he had "concluded that gathering the excess horses is necessary to preserve and maintain a thriving ecological balance and multiple-use relationship" on the land. By bringing back only castrated stallions to the two Wyoming herds, Porter's plan was meant to "prevent the necessity to gather more frequently due to lower population increases over time."

Going forward, the two herds will be genetically limited in ways the government has not yet fully evaluated. This is perhaps the most significant part of the new BLM plan. It doesn't just purport to addres the current "overcrowding" it sees on these ranges. It seeks to impact the ability of these herds in the future to breed the way wild horses have bred for thousands of years. It's a sort of genetic engineering which horse advocate groups say needs a lot more scientific review before it can be implemented in the wild.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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