Reno Gazette Sunday Edition Wild Horse Special Report by Frank X. Mullen– Click here to download Management_or_Stampede to Extinction?
Wild horses: Management or Stampede to Extinction?
MARCH 23, 2010
In the Calico area 100 miles north of Reno earlier this year, racing herds of foam-flecked wild horses thundered between fences that kept getting narrower as a low-flying helicopter drove them into the first corrals they have ever known.
Inside the steel enclosures, the exhausted mares and stallions, colts and fillies, thrashed and bucked. Seven mustangs died at the roundup, and 70 perished later at a holding facility in Fallon where 39 mares also miscarried their foals.
At the Fallon facility, 1,317 wild horses from recent roundups are being freeze-branded, vaccinated and processed for transport to pastures in the Midwest, where they will become zoo animals, wild only in name. About 8,000 more wild horses are scheduled to be removed from public lands this year.
“I’ve been to other roundups, but (the Calico area roundup) was the most like an assembly line I’ve seen,” said Terri Farley, a Reno author who is a plaintiff in a suit to stop the roundups that will be heard in federal court April 30.
“Herd after herd was driven in … it was stampede to extinction.”
The federal government says it handles the mustang roundups in the most humane manner possible and that the “gathers” are needed to provide an ecological balance on the range.
Wild horse advocates say it’s a race to oblivion whose pace has picked up this year. They argue the range is being managed for the benefit of cattle ranchers, energy firms, mining companies and hunters to the detriment of the federally-protected wild horse herds.
“The competition between cattle and wild horses on public lands is a very, very complicated issue,” said Cindy McDonald of Las Vegas, who does statistical research used by wild horse advocacy groups.
“The bottom line is that there are livestock everywhere on federal lands, but on the small portion of the lands left to wild horses, the (federal agencies) consider them a problem. No matter what, the wild horses are always at the bottom rung of federal priorities.”
The activists and the government disagree on nearly every statistic about wild horses, including their numbers, how much acreage they are allotted to roam and how much forage is consumed by horses as compared to cattle or wildlife on federal land. Wild horse data are a maze of statistics and spin, where estimates trump exact figures.
Some facts are available:
» The federal expense for maintaining captured horses is skyrocketing even as adoptions of the animals has waned and thousands more horses are rounded up through the use of helicopters.
» The federal Bureau of Land Management authorizes livestock use on five times as many acres as for wild horse and burro use.
» Federal law limits wild horses and burros to areas designated by a 1971 law. The BLM can’t expand public land use by wild horses, but it can, and has, reduced significantly the acreage available to the animals.
» Public lands allotted to free-roaming mustangs have been reduced by nearly 40 percent over the past four decades.
About 37,000 wild horses and burros roam on more than 32 million acres in 10 Western states, about half in Nevada, according to 2009 BLM figures. An additional 32,000 of them were being held last year in government-funded corrals and pastures. This year, the care and feeding of the captive animals is expected to reach $35 million.
There are more than 2 million cows grazing on public lands under federal permits, according to the cattle industry, but not all those bovines share rangeland with wild horses.
Range Health At Issue
Ranchers say the horses are too numerous, are on the land every day and harm fragile ecosystems, while cattle are closely managed and use the grazing areas only a few months per year.
“Some years, I don’t even use my (grazing permits) because the land is overgrazed by the horse herds,” said Robert R. Depaoli of Lovelock, a third-generation Nevada rancher who has grazing permits in the Calico area north of Gerlach. He said any rancher would be putting himself out of business if he let his cows damage the range.
Depaoli said the wild horse activists are relying on propaganda to stir people’s emotions.
“I saw a cartoon of a fat cow and a starving horse that was supposed to show cattle dominating the range,” he said. “That isn’t happening. It’s the same range. I’ve always been around wild horses. I like them. But they are consuming natural resources, and they have no return on the taxpayer dollar.
“What’s going on now can’t continue. You can’t pay for something and pay for something and not get a return.”
That’s where the ranchers, the activists and the government agree: the current system of roundups and captivity is unsustainable.
The government has consistently denied playing favorites between horses and cattle.
“(The agency) carries out a multiple use, not a single-use, mission,” BLM spokesman Tom Gorey said. “(We) do not remove horses to make room for more cattle grazing. The removal of wild horses and burros from public rangelands is carried out to insure rangeland health, in accordance with land-use plans that are developed in an open, public process.”
The agency says that livestock grazing on public land has declined about 30 percent since 1971, with no plans to reduce grazing permits further. The agency’s current plans are for an “appropriate management level” of 26,600 wild horses and burros on the public range, about 10,000 fewer than today. The BLM plans to use “aggressive birth control methods,” yet to be defined specifically, to keep remaining free-roaming horse populations in check. Various birth control methods have been tested and abandoned as unfeasible over the past 25 years.
Wild horse advocates say the agency’s estimates of mustang populations and rangeland health are a shell game in which the wild horses are always the losers. They argue the agency fences them off from water and then removes them because they are thirsty.
“They are consistently whittling down the numbers of wild horses and burros on the range,” said Craig Downer of Minden, a wildlife biologist and wild horse advocate. “In practice (the BLM) is creating a monopoly use for cattle.”
He said the agency’s management practices, which he said overestimate horse numbers and their effects on the environment, are used to justify the removal of so many horses that the herds are in danger of dying out due to stress on their gene pool.
“(Range managers) are creating a desperate situation for the animals,” Downer said. “They are going in and gutting the herds, creating a crisis that wasn’t there before.”
The BLM’s goal, he said, is to reduce the wild horses to a token presence in a few areas, contrary to the mission of the 1971 federal law that protected wild horses and was passed to insure their existence as free-roaming icons of the West.
Herd Areas Shrink
That law designated more than 51 million acres for the wild horse and burro herds, but over the past 40 years the designated herd areas have been reduced to about 31 million acres. In three states, the herd areas have lost more than 50 percent of their acreage, including an 83 percent decrease in Montana. In Nevada, herd areas have been reduced 36 percent.
The government says most of those reductions were needed to provide an ecological balance.
Federal plans now call for $42 million to be used to purchase pasture land in the Midwest, where Western horses will be shipped and displayed to the public.
That’s an anathema to horse advocates, who want some of the captured horses placed on the designated herd areas where no equines now roam.
“How about putting the mustangs back out on the lands where BLM zeroed them out?” asked Eric Wright, a Nevada photographer. “BLM can’t even explain what happened to the millions of acres where wild horses were to be managed. Just last fall, they completely zeroed out 12 herds outside of Ely, lands where mustangs have roamed for centuries. Now the land is suddenly ‘inappropriate for wild horses,’ but still appropriate for some thousands of head of cattle.”
Heather Emmonds, BLM spokeswoman in Reno, said about 4 million acres of the original designated herd areas in the West were state or private land and not under federal control. Of the remaining 15 million acres, the government removed the land from wild horse management because of an absence of sufficient forage or water, the transfer of land to other federal agencies, conflicts with other uses or with wildlife including endangered species, or responded to the “economic infeasibility” of managing herds over a wide expanse of land.
Enough horses will be left to maintain genetic viability of the remaining herds, the BLM says.
Horse activists argue government managers subverted the law.
“When they want reasons to reduce herd areas they find them,” Downer said. “I’m very bothered by their dishonesty, by the way that they disseminate disinformation, and the public should be bothered by that, too.”
He said the 1971 law proved the American people want the horses to stay on the public land. Americans should pay attention to what’s happening to a national symbol and fight against the extinction of the wild horse herds, he said.
The herds must, Downer said, “forever remain wild and free.”
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