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.

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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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