After Wild Horse Report, Jewell Faces First Moment of Truth at Interior

A new federal report blasts the Bureau of Land Management for its wild horse policies-- putting the new Interior Secretary squarely between science and politics.

Wild horses are rounded up by the Bureau of Land Management in the West Desert of Utah in 2012. (Jim Urquhart/Reuters)

In his February speech nominating her for the position of Secretary of the Interior, President Obama noted that Sally Jewell's aptitude test in high school "showed she had a knack for mechanical reasoning and spatial ability." The line drew a laugh -- it's unclear exactly why -- but Jewell's scientific aptitude, and her subsequent experience both as a mechanical engineer and as a successful business executive, surely will help her absorb the evidentiary magnitude of a long-awaited report about the nation's wild horses released Wednesday by the National Academy of Sciences.

Congenially titled "Using Science to Improve the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program," the long and detailed document, the result of nearly two years worth of investigation and research, chronicles the many ways in which the Bureau of Land Management -- Secretary Jewell's Bureau of Land Management -- has failed to prudently manage the thousands of federally protected wild horses in its care. The BLM itself sought the NAS review. It succeeded in limiting the scope of it. It was accused of trying to stack the deck of contributors to it. But none of this mattered in the end. Bad science is still bad science, especially to good scientists.

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.

What Was Not in the Report

Even a report of this scope is likely to be incomplete, and there are significant questions and areas of concern surrounding the horses that were left out of the NAS's work. In addition to the report's silence on the impact of livestock on public lands, for example, there was no analysis or critique of the BLM's current practice of aggressively rounding up the horses, an event which is routinely cruel and inhumane. There are other, less drastic ways of accomplishing these gathers, ways the BLM has repeatedly rejected. The Bureau is likely to do so again in the absence of clear direction from the NAS.

Nor was there any discussion of the value of reintroducing back onto public lands some of the horses recently captured by the BLM. If, as the Academy indicated, the horses can be safely controlled by infertility methods, if they eventually self-limit their herd populations anyway, and if tens of millions of taxpayer dollars could be saved by returning some of these horses back onto the range, what exactly is the downside? Evidently, to the scientists, that was the sort of "policy matter" they sought to avoid. But given the costs of keeping these horses penned, and after this Report, the Interior Department can no longer avoid that question.

Perhaps the most glaring omission from the Report was the NAS's failure to address in any great detail the BLM's abject failure to abide by the recommendations of scientists 30 years ago -- in 1982 -- when they issued a similar report about the Bureau's failure to base its policy choices upon hard science. At that time, for example, the NSA concluded that: "Forage use by wild equids remains a small fraction of the total forage use by domestic animals on western public ranges, regardless of whether the actual number of equids is in accord with the censuses or somewhat higher." The BLM has ignored that conclusion for decades.

The Reaction

In late 2011, wild horse advocates already were talking in reverential tones about the report, already fearful that the NAS would simply rubber-stamp the BLM's policies. There were fears that the working group had been stacked by anti-horse, pro-slaughter advocates. Even last week, wild horse advocates expressed concern that the NAS report might recommend the slaughter of the tens of thousands of horses the BLM has rounded up. These fears turned out to be unfounded. So the wild horse crowd toggled Tuesday and Wednesday between being cautiously optimistic and proudly vindicated.

"This independent scientific review could not make it more clear: an immediate halt to the removal of horses must be implemented, said Suzanne Roy, the director of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign. "The BLM must stop removing and stockpiling wild horses and burros and start using solutions that are available to them on the range." Carol Walker, a respected wildlife photographer who is a longtime advocate for the horses, was worried about some of the findings in the report but told me that many of the NAS's conclusions point to "letting nature work -- what we have been asking for."

Ginger Kathrens, of the Cloud Foundation, another prominent wild horse advocacy group, was particularly pleased that the NAS supported more "genetic monitoring and tracking the health of herds" and welcomed the Academy's recommendations that the BLM be more responsive to public views about wild horse policy. "This is a common sense recommendation," Kathrens told me Thursday. "There are a few offices that are moving toward this open collaboration with the public and we certainly support these offices and look for more to follow suit." Anything to undermine what some horse advocates call the "cowboy culture" at the BLM.

The Bureau itself was cautious in its reaction to the report. It did not directly acknowledge the many criticisms offered by the NAS. Instead, it offered a few platitudes and made no promises about any of the material suggestions contained in the report. "We commend the National Academy of Sciences for their diligent work on this complex issue," said Neil Kornze, BLM Principal Deputy Director. "The BLM looks forward to reviewing the report in detail and building on the report's findings and recommendations to meet the formidable challenges facing the agency in managing wild horses and burros."

Finally, the ranchers. A man who answered the telephone Thursday at the offices of the Rock Springs Grazing Association, a Wyoming organization dedicated to preserving rangelands for livestock, said the organization had no formal reaction to the report but was planning to "study the study" to determine how it would later react. The Grazing Association has been the principal private catalyst in ridding the public and private lands of southern Wyoming of tens of thousands of wild horses. Those livestock folks aren't likely to think much of what the scientists have concluded about BLM policies which implement those removal goals.

The View Ahead

The BLM may have issued a polite response but a Bureau spokesman, Tom Gorey, was more candid (and classically defensive) in his reaction. "It appears that our critics want to use the report as a propaganda tool to stop gathers, which the BLM is required to do by law," Gorey said. To the Associated Press, meanwhile, he offered up a false choice about the fate of the horses. He said: "Do the American people and does Congress support changing the law so that BLM would carry out a laissez-faire management policy that would subject horses and burros to mass starvation or dehydration by letting Mother Nature work her will?"

It is attitudes like those of Gorey, sadly pervasive within the BLM, which Secretary Jewell will have to confront as she decides how to address, and how to direct, the Interior Department response to this report. If she respects the scientific principles contained in it, and there is no reason why she of all people should not, she will have to oversee a thorough reform of the way the BLM conducts its business over the horses. She will have to root out a culture within the Bureau that has consistently put politics and policy -- those of the livestock industry, for example -- over neutral principles of science and evidence.

Thanks to the NAS, thanks to the earnest men and women of the working group, there hasn't been this much clarity in the nation's wild horse policies in a generation. There is no scientific basis for removing thousands of the nation's horses from public lands and placing them in expensive and dangerous enclosures. There is no scientific basis for ignoring or minimizing safe fertility controls. There is no scientific basis for claiming that the relatively small number of horses do more damage to our lands than do the vast number of cattle and sheep who graze on it at vastly under-market "welfare ranching" rates.

There are no good science, in other words, for virtually the entire factual underpinning of the BLM's recent policies toward the wild horses. Those policies -- which favor the ranching, livestock and energy industries which powerfully lobby the Interior Department -- now can be seen for what they are. Stripped of the patina of the bureaucratic gobbledygook the BLM has long promulgated, the "evidence" the NAS now has identified as flawed and lacking "scientific rigor," we see a federal agency that has used dubious means to justify political ends to the detriment of animals which are both federally protected and generally beloved by the public.

Secretary Jewell is a scientist who became a politician. It's a great story. But what she does now to protect these wild horses, how she responds to the sheer weight of the scientific evidence that supports their continuing presence on the range, and the manner in which she reforms an unrepentant and unscientific BLM will reveal to all of us whether she still has that old knack for "mechanical reasoning and spatial ability." It will also let us know, not incidentally, whether her transformation from engineer to bureaucrat is complete, or has even started.