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.

Among the many options that were considered and rejected by the BLM was the concept of revising the existing "management level" so that more than 205-300 horses would be considered an "appropriate" number to graze on the hundreds of thousands of empty acres. Those figures (205-300) arose in 1981 as part of a settlement in a federal lawsuit over the fate of the horses. The party that sought (and obtained) the drastic limitation on the number of wild horses on the lands is an organization known as the Rock Springs Grazing Association. In 2007, according to the Wyoming Business Report, the Association celebrated "100 years of unity."

Here's what else the business paper had to say about the group:

Today, the grazing association has about 50,000 to 70,000 sheep and about 5,000 cattle using its deeded and leased lands. That's compared to 200,000 to 300,000 sheep when the grazing association was first formed. The numbers have not increased in recent years due to seven years of drought and conservative management. Charging fees for surface use, the RSGA generates revenue for its shareholders while welcoming the energy industry. From trona, coal and natural gas, to pipelines and energy transmission lines, RSGA shares its property

Shares its property with the energy industry, that is, but not with a relatively small number of the nation's wild horses. Although the federal government frequently asserts itself to reshape land use disputes out West, the Interior Department evidently wanted no part of revising the old limits endorsed by the RSGA. In its June "Environmental Assessment" of the matter, the one which is now used to justify the looming roundup, the Agency wrote:

Deviating from existing policy, planning decisions, and agreements reached pursuant to the District Court Order are not considered options nor are they within the scope of this EA. Without the cooperation of private landowners, there is a possibility that this HMA could be eliminated or boundaries redefined. Therefore, this alternative was considered by (sic) eliminated from detailed analysis.

In other words, the Agency spent no "detailed" time evaluating whether the RSGA would cooperate more fully with the government to allow more horses to stay on site-- even though the government says it owns more than 80 percent of the land of the Little Colorado and White Mountain ranges. This is hardly a neutral or objective position for an administrative agency to take-- and perhaps a judge will even doom it as arbitrary and capricious. And here is the most revealing portion of the BLM's circular rationale for removing so many horses at once and then precluding the herd (through the gelding of its sires) from recovering as nature intended.

An alternative considered but not carried forward for detailed analysis was the incremental approach of removing excess wild horses from the HMAs over a period of time. This alternative does not meet the purpose and need to maintain the AMLs, as the existing population of wild horses within the HMAs is currently above the established AMLs and excess wild horses need to be removed in compliance with applicable regulations described in Section 1.3. Due to the number of excess wild horses to be removed and the large geographic area of the HMAs, this technique would be ineffective and impractical to meet the purpose and need.

This passage tells us that, for the BLM, the most important factor here was to reduce the horse population to fit it within the range established 30 years ago. That goal, we learn here, overrode consideration of a number of other factors, including the current health of the horses and the future of the herd. The Agency didn't even reach out to the RSGA to see whether there was any room for compromise. The potential solution of removing fewer horses simply "did not meet the purpose and need" to maintain the 30-year-old deal, the Agency determined, and the BLM sure wasn't going to stick its neck out for a bunch of wild horses it is by law sworn to protect.

"I'd rather have a goddamn horse. A horse is at least human, for God's sake."   

 -- J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye

On Monday, the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign (AWHPC) and other advocates filed a federal lawsuit seeking to halt the roundup before it begins. While you were worrying about offending the good burghers of Rock Springs, the complaint tells the officials at the Interior Department, you were violating the National Environmental Policy Act and the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act as well as the procedural guidelines contained in the Administrative Procedure Act.

Here is how the complaint describes the ways in which one of the named plaintiffs would be harmed by the current roundup plan.

Donna Duckworth visits the White Mountain and Little Colorado HMAs nearly every day, photographing the wild horses and scenery, walking, and otherwise enjoying the beauty of the area. She visits the horses so regularly that she now recognizes individual wild horses and their family groups... Based on her frequent visits to the HMAs, she can also accurately predict where the wild horses will be found based on the weather and the time of the day. She observes that many other people share her interest in the wild horses. Nearly every night she goes out to the HMAs, she sees people looking for and watching the wild horses. Ms. Duckworth experiences great aesthetic enjoyment in viewing wild horses engaging in natural social behaviors in these HMAs - such as mothers caring for their young and other young horses, and stallions protecting mares and foals as they nurse.

As for the legal allegations, the plaintiffs say that the Bureau violated both the letter and spirit of federal law, as well as its own rules, by issuing its "modified decision" without affording the public an opportunity to comment upon the new plan and by failing to adequately protect the "viability" of the two wild horse herds. Federal law, the plaintiffs say, requires the BLM to undertake its "management activities" at "the minimal feasible level" and not en masse as contemplated by the removal of nearly 70 percent of the existing herd. To the extent that the 1981 court order contradicts federal law, the horse groups say, federal law must prevail.

Here's one passage from the complaint that offers some flavor as to what the plaintiffs say is at stake in the case:

The BLM's decision to roundup large numbers of wild horses from these herds and return only castrated stallions harms AWHPC's organizational interest and the interests of its coalition members in protecting and preserving viable free-roaming herds of wild horses on public lands for generations to come. The decision to create "minimally reproducing" herds of wild horses in Wyoming is inconsistent with AWHPC's goal of protecting viable, free-roaming herds of wild horses and will set a precedent for wild horse management in other HMAs that would allow the BLM to pursue actions that alter the horses' natural behaviors, change their social dynamics, and harm the integrity and genetic viability of their herds on a broad scale.

Tom Gorey, senior public affairs specialist at the BLM in Washington, said Tuesday that the Agency has no comment about the pending litigation. It is likely, however, in the next few days, that the BLM will move to dismiss the complaint by arguing that the Agency complied with all procedural requirements and that the federal courts are mandated by law to afford great deference to the decisions made by administrative officials.

I asked Cindy Wertz, a public affairs specialist at the BLM's Wyoming State Office, whether the BLM had contacted the Rock Springs Grazing Association to see if there were wiggle room on the horse limit in the White Mountain and Little Colorado areas. She blew off my question. "We're always having discussions with various public land users, partners and permittees," she told me via email. "I couldn't comment on what is actually discussed during them." Meanwhile, Wyoming, wake up! You advertise the "wild horses" of Sweetwater County in your online tourist material but if you don't chime in soon on this fight there won't be any horses left in Sweetwater County for tourists to sightsee.

The horses paw and prance and neigh
Fillies and colts like kittens play
And dance and toss their rippled manes
Shining and soft as silken skeins

--Oliver Wendell Holmes

Everyone but the most ardent zealots agree that wild horses do have to be "managed" from time to time by the Bureau of Land Management. Reasonable people on both side of the wild-horse divide understand that the occasional culling of herds has benefits both to the horses themselves and to the neighboring flora and fauna. And the federal judges over the decades, over the centuries even, have approved herd culls. Horses may be the great American symbol but when it comes to animal control they are often treated like many other wild animals.  

Some people who count even see them as pests. Not surprisingly, when you talk to the ranching people, they offer a same planet/different world sense of the problem. Don Schramm, the office manager of the Rock Springs Grazing Association, has his own complaints about the BLM. He told me Wednesday that the Agency "has not been able to do its job" of culling out more wild horses from public and private ranch lands because of a "revolving door" of horse groups who have challenged the BLM's actions at every turn. The White Mountain and Little Colorado herds, Schramm says, mostly graze on private lands.

"No," he told me, the BLM did not contact the Grazing Association to see whether the group would be amenable to revising the limit on wild horses in the two Wyoming herd management areas. But it probably wouldn't have mattered anyway. "We are not going to allow any more than what's there," Schramm said. Thousands of wild horses have already been taken from the range over the past decades, he told me, and thousands more will have to be taken in the future. "It's complicated," he said, referring to the diversity of interests which coalesce around this arid, windswept country.

Schramm told me that his group has worked in concert with the BLM for decades, usually together on one side of the fight against wild horse advocates. "The horse numbers" out West today "are obnoxious," Schramm said. "They are so far out of management perspective and prescription that they are conflicting with wildlife. You've heard of the Australian rabbit? Well, we are on our way with the wild horse." Schramm said that his group had just learned of the federal lawsuit and he offered no comment on it.

Wyoming may officially be called the "Equality State" and its motto may be "Forever West" but no one should be fooled into thinking that the wild horses there get equal treatment or that a bunch of castrated stallions tending to a genetically unnatural herd is what Americans think about when they think of the heritage of the Wild West. Instead, the story of these two herds is a story of the federal government, steward of America's wild horses, consistently taking sides against the interests of those horses. In this case, it seems to me, the feds didn't even bother to fully justify what they had already decided to do. All that public land and the government can't figure out a way to better protect those horses? Please. A decision by U.S. District Judge Amy Birman Jackson is expected soon.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic, 60 Minutes' first-ever legal analyst, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. He is also chief analyst for CBS Radio News and has won a Murrow Award as one of the nation's leading legal journalists. More

Cohen is the winner of the American Bar Association’s 2012 Silver Gavel Award for his Atlantic commentary about the death penalty in America and the winner of the Humane Society’s 2012 Genesis Award for his coverage of the plight of America’s wild horses. A racehorse owner and breeder, Cohen also is a two-time winner of both the John Hervey and O’Brien Awards for distinguished commentary about horse racing.

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