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.

THE PRYOR MOUNTAIN HERD

Take, for example, the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse herd in southern Montana. It is one of the most famous and visible herds in the country -- and it is home to a stallion named Cloud, who is probably the most famous wild horse in the world. As such, the Pryor Mountain herd is as useful a symbol as any both of what the BLM can do, and what it refuses to do, in managing the nation's wild horses. And the current fate of the herd -- which today is very much in doubt -- offers lessons about the extent of industry control over BLM policies.

On the one hand, the BLM has laudably chosen to avoid those awful, dangerous, helicopter stampedes as it seeks to "manage" the size of the herd. Instead, federal officials are content to use "bait trapping" (where horses are lured by mineral blocks and water) and PZP (a contraceptive injected into horses) to manage the herds. Most wild horse advocates, especially those who recognize that the herds must be managed to some extent, approve of these measures as among the least onerous around.

On the other hand, however, the BLM's local managers now plan to remove from the Pryor Mountain management area anywhere from one-half to two-thirds of the herd's young mustangs, a forced diaspora that wild horse advocates say would critically damage the herd's ability to survive as a genetically-viable group. An easier solution, these advocates say, is simply to open up for the herd's use some 3,650 acres of "administrative" pastureland at the base of Pryor Mountain, public land, which is ... in the control of the BLM and currently unused.

There are other solutions that involve a re-allocation of public land. For example, Ginger Kathrens, of the Cloud Foundation, says the BLM can "push to expand the herd's designated range into the Custer National Forest at the top of the mountain." She says that federal and state officials can also try to limit the hunting of mountain lions, who see the wild horses as natural prey. And she's also in favor of a "phased removal," which would "avoid genetic compromise" and the trauma the horses face when they are chased and penned.

You get the idea. Portrayed as zealots by BLM officials, harried by livestock lobbyists, most wild horse advocates concede that the horses must be managed to reduce overpopulation. They acknowledge that the herds cannot be allowed to breed without limitation. And they point to many reasonable ways in which the wild horses can be fairly and adequately managed on the range to save taxpayers the cost of holding them in brutal pens. But it takes two to tango. And the BLM won't force the powerful cattle industry to come to the dance floor.

POSTSCRIPT

The main reason so many of America's wild horses are on the public dole today is because the industries who want to maintain their "welfare ranching" privileges have put pressure on federal and state lawmakers and bureaucrats to rid the range lands of the herds. That's why Guilfoyle sounds so trite when she complains about the cost of keeping the wild horses penned. 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.

Doesn't this scenario sound familiar? Federal and state policy and priorities, fueled by corporate influence, have essentially created a new form of federal beneficiary, the nation's beloved wild horses. And the very same people who have created this class of welfare recipients now are complaining about the costs of protecting the class from destruction -- or are actively seeking to destroy the class by making horse slaughter an American institution once again. This is raw political and economic power at its worst.

What do you suppose would happen if Salazar, Guilfoyle, and company mustered up the courage to say to the ranchers and miners and livestock lobbyists: "You can't have it both ways. You cannot reap the economic benefit from grazing on cheap public land -- a form of corporate welfare that Washington doesn't talk much about -- without bearing the economic costs of protecting reasonable herd numbers or of caring for the horses that must be dispossessed of their native range lands."

What would happen would be nothing. Not without new leadership at the Interior Department. Not with livestock advocates masquerading as neutrals on the Advisory Board. Not without a renewed legislative commitment to protect the horses. The fact is there are millions of acres of available land upon which the horses may roam, our mustangs represent a tiny fraction of the animals that graze upon that land, and the American people are now being forced to pay for the results of a corporate welfare policy they neither agree with nor know much about.

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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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