The Quiet War Against Wyoming's Wild Horses

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How can a state promote its wild horses as a tourist attraction while it seeks to decimate herds?

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Reuters

Listen for the sound of hooves pounding. Look for manes flying in the wind. Feel the rush of awe at the sight of these creatures. The Pilot Butte Wild Horse Scenic Loop Tour is something you and your family will never forget because Sweetwater County's cherished wild horses are living examples of a wide-open landscape and untamed frontier spirit.

--Wyoming Tourism Board

The Wyoming Tourism Board wants you and your family to come see the wild horses in Sweetwater County, but you better go quick. Beginning next month, federal officials and local contractors will roundup and remove approximately 700 of those horses (about 70 percent of the herd) to satisfy the complaints of the cattle and sheep ranchers in the area who don't want to share land with federally-protected horses. The "cherished," "living examples" of Wyoming's western heritage will be penned in and then given up for adoption or sold at auction. Many will soon die. Some may even be slaughtered for meat. All will likely be gone from view in Sweetwater County. You and your family, having traveled to southwestern Wyoming, may be plum out of luck.

This is my third take on these Wyoming horses in just the past few weeks, and I again beg your indulgence. First, I wrote about a failed federal plan to round up the horses, geld the stallions, and return some back to the herds to decrease natural procreation cycles. When the government was sued in federal court in Washington to stop the removal and castration, the feds backed off and came forward with a new pitch. The horses would leave, but none of the stallions would be castrated. This plan appears to be going forward. I wrote about that, too. The number of horses in two vast "herd management areas," located in a desolate part of the state, would again dip below 300, making it much less likely that a tourist family would see a wild horse in Sweetwater County. 

The reason for my persistence isn't difficult to explain. Each time I write something about these horses, I learn something more about the politics of their plight that is worth sharing to a broader audience. This time, the story is not just about the hypocrisy evident in Wyoming's attitude toward these horses -- the state is both marketing them as tourist attractions and actively conspiring to get rid of them. It's also about the curious conduct of the U.S. Department of the Interior, which, again, has done the bidding of an industry that it is supposed to regulate. With friends like the BLM and Wyoming state officials, the horses and their human supporters don't need any enemies.

The cattle and sheep industries want the horses gone from the rangeland -- even though the ranchers reap the benefits of having their herds graze upon public land at low cost. To support their position, the ranchers cite a 1981 consent decree, overseen by a local federal judge, which limits the number of wild horses that are to be left in the Little Colorado and White Mountain herd areas to approximately 300. To the ranchers, the horses are a nuisance, not an asset, a point Wyoming doesn't happen to mention in its breathless tourism campaigns, which feature television ads of thundering herds.

"That our government is unwilling to find these horses room -- or even consider doing so -- contradicts the spirit, if not the letter, of federal law"

Meanwhile, the BLM and Wyoming seem more intent on justifying ways to get rid of the horses rather than upon figuring out how to preserve and protect them. Wyoming cites a 2003 agreement between state officials and the Bush-era Department of the Interior, which places legal pressure on the BLM to rid Wyoming of excess wild horses -- and the BLM itself gets to determine what constitutes "excess." These officials say they have history and the law on their side. But the facts seem to support those who support the horses. When you have the law going one way and the facts going another, it's typically time to go to court. And that's not the worst thing that could happen here.   

Wyoming

Earlier this week, I asked Chuck Coon, Media Relations Manager at the Wyoming Office of Tourism, how he squared the evident contradiction of Wyoming's policies. How can you be advertising to tourists to come see the wild horses of Sweetwater Country while Wyoming's lawyers are in federal court endorsing the BLM policy to rid the area of most of its horses? Here is Coon's response:

As you know, management of wild horse herd sizes in Wyoming is under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management. No matter what decision is rendered in terms of herd reductions there will remain ample opportunities for visitors to see wild horses in several parts of this state. And we'll continue to help local tourism entities in the open landscapes where those horses still roam in Sweetwater County, Park County, Carbon County and Big Horn County as part of our overall marketing of the state as a tourism destination.
Coon understandably wants to reassure Wyoming's tourists that they still have "ample opportunities" to see the horses of Sweetwater County. We'll see. But the state didn't merely defer the question to the BLM, as Coon suggests. Instead, Wyoming weighed in heavily via litigation on behalf of its ranchers, one of whom, Matt Mead, happens to be the state's governor. No small wonder. The ranching lobby in Wyoming (and Washington) is powerful. The wild horse lobby is not. When it comes to these horses, might makes right under cover of law.
 

Through a spokesman, and via email, Gov. Mead dodged the question of how Wyoming could market its wild horses with one hand and decimate its wild horse herds with the other. "The Governor's approach, which follows the approach of past governors, is to ensure there is balance on the range and right now with the number of wild horses in this herd there is an imbalance." When pushed, the spokesman wrote: "The State of Wyoming has an interest in defending its consent decree. That agreement allows for horses on the range, but also prevents overpopulation that damages the public lands for other uses, which are equally important for tourism and other industries, like ranching and hunting."

When the governor's office uses the word "balance" to describe how Wyoming's vast range lands ought to be used, what it really means is "imbalance." Cattle and sheep dominate the Wyoming range when compared to wild horses. And when the governor's office uses the word "imbalance" to describe the current situation, what it really means is the growing "balance" between and among species when wild animals are left to their own devices. Meanwhile, as you will see below, reasonable people disagree about what constitutes an "overpopulation" of wild horses in or near Sweetwater County.

According to statistics compiled by Jonathan Ratner, of the Western Watersheds Project, one of the plaintiffs who initially filed suit to block the Wyoming removal/castration plan, Wyoming and the BLM currently allocate nine times more forage for livestock than for wild horses in the two herd management areas from which the horses soon will be taken. There are approximately 850,000 acres of public land in those two areas -- and the ranchers won't tolerate more than approximately 300 wild horses there. You do the math. There is plenty of room for all of Wyoming's four-legged creatures.  

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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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