Wild horse advocates and ranchers will differ upon what the Report's conclusions mean. But there can be no disagreement over what the document means to Jewell. Last month, she told the Denver Post that she was waiting for the Report to be published before she determined BLM policy over the horses. Now she finds herself caught squarely between science and politics. If she is true to the former she will anger an important political constituency -- ranchers. And if she is true to the latter she will be shunning a life philosophy that has prioritized scientific rigor. Just a few months into her term, she's already reached a critical juncture.
What Was in the NAS Report
At the heart of the current debate over the nation's wild horses is the BLM policy (encouraged and enhanced by Jewell's predecessor Ken Salazar) of removing horses from their native rangelands out West and warehousing them in enclosures in the Midwest. Tens of thousands of wild horses now are so kept, at great taxpayer expense, while federal officials figure out what to do with them. For years, the BLM has justified these removals, many of which are dangerous to the horses, by claiming they are necessary to protect grazing lands for "multiple uses," which really means livestock grazing and energy exploration.
The NAS Report took a dim view of the science behind this policy. The BLM's "current practice of removing free-ranging horses from public lands promotes a high population growth rate," the report concluded, "and maintaining them in long-term holding facilities is both economically unsustainable and incongruent with public expectations." In other words, the scientists found that by removing so many wild horses from our lands the Interior Department was doing the opposite of what it was trying to do -- decreasing population rates among the herds -- and doing it without adequate scientific reason.
The report also was critical of the manner in which the BLM counts, or tries to count, the number of wild horses on the range. And, importantly, it was critical of the way in which federal administrators evaluate the different impacts of different grazing animals upon the millions of acres in play here. Even though the BLM limited the scope of the NAS review to exclude an in-depth evaluation of the impact of sheep and cattle on these lands -- the livestock outnumbers the wild horses in these places by orders of magnitude -- the NAS acknowledged that such an evaluation was scientifically required. Here's the essence of the report:
The Wild Horse and Burro Program has not used scientifically rigorous methods to estimate the population sizes of horses and burros, to model the effects of management actions on the animals, or to assess the availability and use of forage on rangelands. Evidence suggests that horse populations are growing by 15 to 20 percent each year, a level that is unsustainable for maintaining healthy horse populations as well as healthy ecosystems.
Promising fertility-control methods are available to help limit this population growth, however. In addition, science-based methods exist for improving population estimates, predicting the effects of management practices in order to maintain genetically diverse, healthy populations, and estimating the productivity of rangelands. Greater transparency in how science-based methods are used to inform management decisions may help increase public confidence in the Wild Horse and Burro Program.
It is hard to read the report, and I read a lot of it, without concluding that the the Academy's writers were trying to be as polite as possible -- the diplomatic language of intra-government dialogue -- while blistering the BLM for its policies, practices, and management style. But you need only read the sub-headlines in the report summary to understand how little the scientists think of the way the BLM has conducted its business. The Bureau often says that it is simply doing things "by the book." But today even "the book" is suspect. The BLM's "Wild Horses and Burros Management handbook lacks specificity," the NAS report concludes.