The Feds Unnecessarily Round Up Wild Horses, Then Complain About Costs

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After ridding Western lands of thousands of wild mustangs at the request of corporate interests, the Bureau of Land Management now is worried about the price of its programs.

wild horse run-body.jpgWild horses run as they are gathered in the West Desert of Utah, outside Tooele. / Reuters

It surely cannot be easy these days being Joan Guilfoyle, the (relatively) new director of the Bureau of Land Management's Wild Horse and Burro Program. On the one hand she works for a federal agency, the Interior Department, which is largely beholden to the powerful industries it is supposed to regulate. And on the other hand, she is responsible, under federal law and policy, for ensuring the survival and management of the nation's wild horses at a time when relentless political and economic forces threaten to decimate the herds.

"It's tricky, and it's hard," Guilfoyle said last fall in an interview shortly after she assumed her post. "There are a lot of emotions around it, a lot of different opinions." Indeed, there are. The ranchers and farmers and miners and oilmen see the wild horses as feral pests that should be gone from public and private land. Wild horse advocates see the herds as victims of faulty science, special interests, and spineless federal and state officials. There is, they say, plenty of public land out West where the horses could freely, and safely, roam.

The horses wouldn't be penned to begin with, and they wouldn't cost much at all to maintain, if the BLM simply stood up to the industries it is supposed to regulate.

As regular readers of this space know (see sidebar below), the problem of what to do with the nation's horses is a complex one. Complex -- but not impossible. There are some practical people who think they may have long-term solutions. There are some reasonable proposals on the table. But it is going to take many acts of political and bureaucratic courage over a long period to steer the horses out of harm's way, to reduce their financial imprint upon taxpayers, and to achieve the sort of ecological balance most Americans would agree makes sense in the circumstances.

Does Guilfoyle have what it takes? More broadly, can an Interior Department led by an unrepentant rancher, Ken Salazar, ever be an honest broker here? Not bloody likely. Having implemented a policy that has driven tens of thousands of horses from their native ranges to grim holding pens, having enabled "welfare ranching" by creating "welfare horses" by shifting the cost of the wild horses from land owners to the general public, Guilfoyle last week said, "Where are we going to put these animals? We only have so much money."

THE ANNUAL MEETING

The Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board met last week in Reno, Nevada. Designed by the Wild Horse Act of 1971 to be the people's voice on horse management, the Board has devolved instead over the years into a partisan group where the warring factions incessantly argue with one another -- and the Bureau of Land Management -- over what should be done with and to the horses. Think of the rough and tumble bar scene in Star Wars -- only with ranchers, farmers, horse advocates, and bureaucrats warily criticizing one another across a hotel conference room.

There were two headlines from last week's meeting. First, the BLM announced that more wild horses than planned might have to be rounded up this summer -- by helicopter stampede -- due to what officials believe may constitute "emergency" drought conditions out West. By labeling the drought this way, federal officials may attempt to minimize the procedural requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act, which generally require the feds to justify their roundups, in advance, and to make their plans available for public comment.

The other big news was the renewed push by livestock advocates to resume the slaughter of wild horses. The argument goes something like this: Since the BLM now has "stockpiled" nearly 50,000 wild horses, and since the federal government is responsible for housing these horses at public expense, the prudent course is to get rid of the "excess" horses by selling them "without limitation" to the highest bidder. "Without limitation" is a deadly euphemism for slaughter. The sold horses would quickly end up at rendering plants.

Here's how one horse advocate, Deniz Bolbol, of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, sees the essence of last week's meeting:

As part of its strategy for reform, the BLM had promised Congress that it would reduce wild horse removals from 10,000 to 7,600 for Fiscal Years 2012 - 2014. For 2012, the agency already anticipates exceeding the removal number promised to Congress, with 8,909 wild horses targeted for removal from the range, inclusive of 1,035 horses to be removed from Forest Service lands. Now the BLM is indicating that it will use drought as an excuse to round up even more horses from the range. Alternatives to these removals, such as temporarily hauling in water for wild horses and wildlife; restoring and protecting spring heads; significantly reducing livestock grazing over the long term; and addressing major consumptive users of water on public lands, such as mining operations; do not appear to be under consideration.

Tom Gorey, a BLM spokesman, offered this response Tuesday afternoon via email;

The BLM doesn't use drought as an "excuse" to round up horses. When we see a need for emergency gathers, we respond rather than let horses die at the decree of Mother Nature. One of the proposed answers to keeping more wild horses on the range -- removing cattle - - is a red herring. This prescription ignores the fact that cattle grazing has declined by more than 30 percent since 1971, when Congress passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act. Those who oppose livestock grazing on public lands, on which the BLM carries out a multiple-use mission, should seek a legislative answer to their political objective.

And what does Guilfoyle say? Last week, according to the Associated Press, she said this: "Drought conditions are a big concern. Adoptions are still down. Long-term holding space -- we are having a challenge getting enough of it. Short-term holding space is expensive because gas and hay is rising." In other words, she's now complaining about a problem the BLM itself helped create by ratcheting up the pace of its forced roundups while refusing to implement less drastic measures to cull the herds. That's just not going to get the job done.

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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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