On Wyoming's Wild Horses, the BLM Unambitiously Responds

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The Department of the Interior defends its ongoing roundup of herds, but its response is filled with shallow arguments and misinformation

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A helicopter is used by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to gather wild horses in the Conger Mountains near Border in Utah September 7, 2010 / Reuters

Here is Wyoming's pitch-pure tourism advertisement now playing on television. It's called "Don't Fence Me In" and it features beautiful natural scenes, including a herd of horses running upon the open prairie. Before I dive briefly back into the story of what the Bureau of Land Management, state officials, and ranching industry executives are doing right now, today, to two Wyoming wild horse herds, I ask you to please spend 30 seconds watching this video. It animates the issues at hand more than I ever could with words. 


I love this commercial. As a proud citizen of the West, it evokes in me the pride I feel about living in a place that still has big skies and wide, open spaces. It makes me think of the scenic drive from Missoula, Montana, to Yellowstone National Park, through some of the most gorgeous country America offers to the world. And to me, anyway, it's brilliant marketing by the Wyoming Tourism Board, whose members obviously understand the value that millions of Americans place upon the wild horse as a symbol of the nation's heritage.

This is the fourth time in the past month or so I have written about the wild horses of Wyoming. Starting yesterday, as much as 70 percent of two free-ranging herds in and around Sweetwater County, in the southwestern part of the state, are being rounded up and taken away by BLM personnel and contractors. Approximately 700 wild horses will be taken from the wild and held in pens pending adoption or sale (or worse). "Don't Fence me In" may be the state's tourism slogan. Yet these very symbols of the state, the very symbols of the West, will soon be fenced in, probably forever.

First, I wrote about a BLM roundup plan that also included castrating the stallions of these herds and then returning the geldings back to the range. Then I wrote about the BLM's decision to back away from that part of its plan under public pressure from horse advocacy groups and the public. Finally, about 10 days or so ago, I wrote about the hypocrisy inherent in Wyoming's attitude toward its horses; it is marketing the herds as tourist attractions even as it is plotting with ranchers and the BLM to undermine the horses. 

It was this last piece which garnered more attention than its predecessors. In it, I suggested that the federal agency in charge of the wild horses, the Department of the Interior, through its BLM, has not often shown itself to be a neutral player when evaluating the vested interests that compete for Western public lands. The ranchers almost always win. The wild horses almost always lose. And the Interior Department is run by a rancher, Ken Salazar, whose former subordinate, Sylvia Baca, is alleged to have encouraged ranchers to sue her own department to get their way. Now comes an official response from the Bureau of Land Management. I rebut some of its main components below. 

THE BLM's RESPONSE

Here is the full text of the response I received late Friday afternoon from Tom Gorey, Senior Public Affairs Specialist for the Bureau of Land Management.

Contrary to what is alleged in this latest wild horse column of Mr. Cohen for The Atlantic, the Bureau of Land Management is not waging a "war" against wild horses, nor is it "managing for extinction," as other critics have similarly charged. In fact, the current on-the-range population of wild horses and burros (approximately 38,500) is greater than the number found roaming in 1971 (about 25,300), when Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act.

The BLM is seeking to achieve the appropriate management level of 26,600 wild horses and burros on Western public rangelands, or nearly 12,000 fewer than the current West-wide population. The ecosystems of public rangelands are simply not able to withstand the impacts resulting from overpopulated herds, and that is why the 1971 law, as amended, directs the Interior Secretary to remove wild horses and burros in circumstances where the animals exceed the range's capacity to sustain them.

As for the claim that some wild horses "may even be slaughtered for meat," this is a disingenuous assertion, as the BLM screens both adopters and buyers of wild horses and burros. It is a legal reality, of course, that once the title of ownership to a wild horse or burro passes from the Federal government to an adopter or buyer that the animal becomes private property, but the BLM makes every effort through its screening process and the terms of adoption agreements and sale contracts to prevent the slaughter of former wild horses and burros. These documents both contain a clause that adopters and purchasers agree to, declaring that they have no intent to sell the animal(s) for processing into commercial products.

The comparison of the amount of BLM-managed land used for livestock grazing (157 million acres) to the amount used by wild horses and burros (26.9 million acres) ignores the fact that the 1971 law cited above confines the management of wild horses and burros to areas inside the boundaries of where the animals were found roaming on BLM and Forest Service-managed land in 1971. That's the law -- letter and spirit.

Regarding the Wyoming-related wild horse litigation, the BLM cannot comment on pending cases, but it can be said that neither the Interior Department nor the BLM view litigation as the way to go in resolving public land issues.

The big picture is that the BLM carries out a multiple-use mission, which is principally defined by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976. This job requires our agency to accommodate various uses of the public land while preserving resources -- a complex mission, to be sure, but one that Congress has set forth as our mandate in law. While this multiple-use mission cannot compete with lurid headlines like "The Quiet War Against Wyoming's Wild Horses," The Atlantic's readership deserves to know the full scope of the BLM's responsibilities, which include the humane and cost-effective management of America's wild horses and burros, both on and off the range.

REBUTTAL

As a general matter, this was a disappointing official response on many levels. Rather than respond to the specific points my article raised, the BLM simply regurgitated in much of the same bureaucratese the talking points it has offered before when this topic comes up. Here was a chance for the BLM to really engage with wild horse advocates, on a topic a lot of people seem to be talking about, and the Bureau simply bailed. You bail, I guess, when you have the power but not the argument. The BLM has the authority. The roundup now is underway. Why go into the messy details?

Here are some of those details. 

1. Leaving aside for another day the Bureau's "extinction" comment, the BLM first says there are roughly 13,000 more wild horses in America today than there were in 1971, when they were formally protected by federal statute. I'm not sure this is right. First, there were evidently far more than 25,000 wild horses in 1971, as the BLM now claims. In fact, the BLM's own figures (Appendix C, Page 37) indicate that in 1974 there were at least 42,666 wild horses on the range. If you believe those figures, there are fewer wild horses today, on less public land, than there were 40 years ago. Having caused this situation, the BLM should take responsibility for it.

2. The BLM next says that the "ecosystems" of "public lands" cannot withstand more than 26,000 or so wild horses. Here we are at the heart of the matter. Even though cattle and sheep outnumber wild horses on public lands by at least a ten-to-one margin, the BLM largely blames the horses for roiling the resources of the range. By doing so, the Bureau justifies the imposition of this arbitrary 26,000-horse figure even though there are millions of acres of public land where more horses could safely roam. So long as the BLM continues to make this claim and defend it in court, wild horse advocates will have a hard time protecting the herds.

This is the single most important aspect of the fight between horse advocates and ranchers. The BLM grades the wild horses harshly for their impact on the range. But it does not appear to grade the cattle and sheep for the impact they bear upon it. It's very much like the debt and deficit battle we just witnessed in Washington. The BLM is focusing upon the two percent that is relatively easy to fix rather than upon the 98 percent which is not. The reason is not hard to fathom. The ranchers have a powerful lobby. The horses do not. And the Interior Department doesn't want to tick off one of the industries it is supposed to regulate.

Interestingly, in its response the BLM failed to rebut, or even mention, the new claims made against it by Robert Edwards, a range scientist who worked at the BLM for 30 years before becoming an independent consultant. Just recently, as part of a lawsuit over the Wyoming horses, Edwards challenged the BLM over its claim that it is the horses, and not the livestock, which are ruining the range. Anyone interested in this topic should read the Edwards Report. At a minimum, it creates a disputed issue of material fact about whether wild horses deplete as many natural resources as the BLM says they do.

3. The BLM next calls me "disingenuous" for writing that some of the wild horses that are rounded up are sold to slaughter. Now, if I had accused BLM officials of selling wild horses for slaughter perhaps I might have deserved the label. But I did not. What I implied is that some of the horses the BLM takes off the range end up in the wrong hands and on their way to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico. This should be an undisputed fact. Just two weeks ago, for example, the BLM seized 64 wild horses in Utah in a sting operation against alleged smugglers.

The BLM defends the status quo on slaughter by arguing that it does the best it can when it sells or allows out for adoption wild horses. It's a neat argument on paper but it doesn't wash in the real world. In this grim video, for example, the pro-slaughter crowd earlier this year in plain view discussed how easy it is, in practice, for once-wild American horses to be slaughtered in Canada or Mexico. The BLM shouldn't pretend otherwise by claiming it is making "every effort" to stop this practice. If it were, federal inspectors would be performing brand inspections all across the borders to prevent wild horses from being rendered abroad.

Don't just blame the BLM for these sins of omission. Blame Congress and the White House, too. In 2004, for example, then Montana senator Conrad Burns, a Republican who once called ranchers "the best stewards of public lands," snuck into federal legislation what's known as the Burns Amendment. Signed into law by that great ersatz scion of the West, George W. Bush, the law effectively gutted protections for wild horses by allowing the BLM to private sell older and unadoptable mustangs to private buyers.

Like Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, Wyoming Governor Matt Mead, and Wyoming's lone delegate to the House of Representatives Cynthia Loomis, Conrad Burns has ties to the ranching industry. Seven years after his amendment, and nearly three years after the Obama Administration came into power promising to restore the balance of power over the nation's land, air and water, no one in Washington has stepped up to restore protection for the wild horses of the American West. Not the White House. Not Congress. And not the courts.

The current slaughterhouse rule has created a dynamic problem that is only going to get worse as the BLM rounds up more wild horses it cannot afford to keep in captivity. Since the Bureau rounds up far more horses each year than can be adopted out or legitimately sold to honest buyers, and since the cost of housing the wild horses in "holding facilities" is high (tens of millions of dollars), the economics favor the slaughterhouse operators and their agents. Having created the supply-and-demand problem in the first place, the BLM should own up to its responsibilities to ensure the wild horses don't soon find their way to rendering plants.

4. The BLM next takes issue with my assertion that it is not allocating enough public land for the benefit of wild horses. Here again, the BLM has forcefully countered a point no one is trying to make. No one, including me, is asking the Bureau the BLM to open up all of its land to wild horses. But the fact is that the BLM and ranchers have pushed out wild horse herds even from those relatively small areas of public land that was specifically designated for the horses back in 1971. Citing these statistics and maps, wild horse advocates claim that the herds have been removed (zeroed-out) from perhaps as much as half of the area initially granted to the horses by statute. Tens of millions of acres of former wild-horse country now are off limits to horses -- but still open to livestock, these advocates say.

5. Unsurprisingly, the BLM didn't want to comment directly on the points I made about the way in which Wyoming is using its wild horses as marketing tools even as it conspires to get rid of them. I don't blame the Bureau for that. The fact is that the BLM is often sued by both sides in the battle -- by the wild horse groups who seek more protection for the animals and by ranchers who seek more decisive action by the government to get rid of the animals. In this respect, the BLM is not unlike any other government agency seeking to balance out competing interests. The point of my last piece was to suggest that there isn't really a great deal of balance between those interests. One wins. The other loses.

6. Finally, the BLM reminds readers that its function in life is not just to protect wild horses but also to properly manage the federal lands over which it has jurisdiction. Fair enough. Here's what Suzanne Roy, of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, says about that:

Multiple use does not require livestock grazing. Again, Congress deemed wild horses to be worthy of protection as national symbols of freedom whose presence on Western public lands is an important part of our history and heritage. The Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act designated the lands where wild horses were found in 1971 as habitat to be managed principally but not exclusively for wild horses. The BLM has turned this mandate on it head by allocating the majority of resources in federally designated wild horse areas to private livestock and not wild horses. The multiple use mandate does not require livestock grazing and it certainly does not require the imbalance of resource allocation that exists today.

If the BLM wants to live up to its mandate to protect and preserve America's wild horses then it will begin to address the inequities of resource allocation on the small amount of BLM lands on which wild horses reside. It will also shift resources away from the current costly and cruel roundup, remove and stockpile strategy toward on-the-range management of wild horses, utilizing cost-effective and humane fertility control strategies where necessary.

As I have written before, it's not just what the BLM is doing to these wild horses that disturbs a great many people. It is the way in which the deed is being done. Consistently backing ranching interests over horse advocacy groups, annually squeezing the horses out of more and more public land, the BLM nonetheless wants to maintain the public pretense that it is an honest broker when it comes to the fate of the horses -- that its officials are doing what they can, within the narrow confines of federal law, to protect and manage the herds. But this is a false pretense. Literally and figuratively these days, America's wild horses are on the run; suitable for marketing but otherwise harassed by their human stewards.

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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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