Efforts by the federal government to control wild horses and burros are falling far short and need a major overhaul, according to landowners living in states where the booming population is putting increased stress on natural resources.
“The federal agencies that are responsible for effective management have lost control,” said Doug Busselman, Executive Vice President of the Nevada Farm Bureau.
“Overwhelmed by an unsustainable number of horses and burros, they don’t have the ability or the budget to carry out their responsibilities.”
The lack of management led two organizations to file a lawsuit last December, but the federal government recently asked the court to throw it out on a technicality.
Nevada Association of Counties (NACO) and the Nevada Farm Bureau Federation filed the suit, claiming that overpopulation of horses was a symptom of the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) negligence to follow the Wild Horse and Burro Act, resulting in damage to the range, wildlife and wild horses. The lawsuit seeks an order for the Department of Interior (DOI) and BLM to comply with the requirements of the Wild Free- Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act of 1971.
The act gives the Secretary of the Interior management control of wild free-roaming horses and burros in a manner that is designed to achieve and maintain a thriving natural ecological balance on public lands. The BLM is charged with the task of setting Appropriate Management Levels (AMLs) and is required by federal law to manage wild horse and burro populations.
There are roughly 50,000 horses and burros running on BLM lands, according to Joan Guilfoyle, Chief, Wild Horse and Burro Division at BLM. The ideal population is 26,700. The wild horse total population in the West comes in at about 150,000 he told attendees at the Western Interstate Region (WIR) Conference in Anchorage, May 21–23.
Off the range, as of April 2014, there were 48,194 other wild horses and burros fed and cared for at short-term corrals and long-term pastures.
Last July, BLM said it was trucking 5,000 gallons of water per day, five days a week to four separate locations throughout the Winnemucca District in Nevada, at a cost of $1,000 per day.
“Wild horses and burros have long been an integral part of the landscape and heritage of Nevada. Nevada has the highest percentage of public lands and in return Nevada has the highest population of wild horses and burros. This lawsuit is aimed at protecting Nevada’s rangelands, protecting the state’s limited natural resources and ultimately protecting the horses. As a result of the overpopulation of wild horses and burros, there are examples of degradation of natural springs and riparian areas, unhealthy or dying horses, and negative effects on native wildlife and vegetation,” Nevada Farm Bureau wrote in a statement.
Nevada’s Elko County pledged to give up to $10,000 to NACO to help pay for the lawsuit, which NACO President Jeff Fontaine had estimated could cost as much as $90,000.
NACO specifically seeks immediate roundups of excess horses on public land, continual monitoring of horse numbers on herd management areas at least every two months, to discontinue using long-term holding facilities and to “cease interfering with Nevada water rights owned by third parties,” a NACO document states.
According to the lawsuit, Congress has cut funding for management of wild horses and burros.
“[E]ven as populations of wild horses have risen nationwide, Congress has curtailed many of the tools that might prevent and mitigate any deleterious effects of the species on local resources,” it states. “Specifically, Congress has decreased funding available to BLM for horse management—thereby limiting BLM’s capacity to remove excess horses—even as it has forbidden BLM from humanely destroying excess horses stored in BLM’s longterm holding faculties.”
DOI filed a motion to dismiss the complaint in its entirety, making the legal argument that the plaintiffs didn’t challenge any “agency action.”
“Instead, the claim challenges an alleged pattern and practice of conduct, which is not subject to judicial review,” court documents state.
Wild horse advocates also filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, claiming that their interests were not represented.
“The NACO lawsuit lacks merit and is the latest attempt by ranchers to create a legal facade to give the BLM an excuse to cave into their interests and remove more mustangs,” said Suzanne Roy, Director of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign (AWH- PC). “We are hopeful that the court will dismiss this case, which is yet another meritless legal assault on federally protected wild horses and burros by ranchers who view these national icons as competition for cheap, taxpayersubsidized grazing on our public lands.”
According to AWHPC, the NACO lawsuit is part of a broader push from anti-wild horse advocates to compel the BLM to remove an increasing number of wild horses from public lands and sell captured wild horses for slaughter.
“In addition to Nevada ranchers, ranchers in Utah and Wyoming have also sued the BLM, and the agency has a history of quickly capitulating to their demands, regardless of the legal merits of their cases. In fact, the Interior Department actually encouraged Wyoming ranchers to file a lawsuit against the BLM as a way of securing more funding for wild horse roundups,” AWHPC wrote in a press release.
While the management lawsuit is in limbo, roundups are gaining their typical summer attention, also with a variety of lawsuits.
Wild horse advocates Bonnie Kohleriter and Laura Leigh of the Nevada-based group Wild Horse Education recently dropped a lawsuit challenging roundups at a wildlife refuge on the Nevada-California line after BLM dropped a contractor accused of selling horses for slaughter.
The Fish and Wildlife Service notified the contractor, J&S Associates of Mississippi, on June 23 that its contract had been terminated and the firm would not be receiving the $11,633 it was to be paid at future roundups.
In Wyoming, BLM is holding a hearing on the use of helicopters and motorized vehicles in wild horse management operations at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, July 16, in the Rock Springs Field Office, 280 Highway 191 N., Rock Springs, WY.
Helicopters are used for wild horse removals and census and population distribution flights over herd management areas. Motorized vehicles, including tractor trailers and pickup trucks, are used to transport wild horses. The helicopters have been at the heart of roundup controversies.
In California, BLM has begun capturing and removing wild horses from private lands in eastern Siskiyou County.
The BLM is using a method called “water trapping,” in which a temporary corral is set up around a water source. A gate automatically closes behind the animals when they come in to drink. The agency expects to capture 50 to 80 horses from private lands.
“Ecosanctuaries” popping up
With 48,194 horses in state holding pens, privately owned “ecosanctuaries,” seem to be popping up as the next BLM fix to the growing population.
Deerwood Ranch Wild Horse EcoSanctuary in Centennial, WY, was the first BLM-Certified Wild Horse EcoSanctuary. “Here, these beautiful animals will be able to live out their lives and be cared for in a setting that is as close to possible like their natural environment... only better!” Deerwood Ranch’s website claims.
Montana’s BLM is the latest to look at this option, opening a public comment period on an environmental assessment that analyzes a proposed wild horse ecosanctuary near Drummond.
The non-profit Rural Sustainability Organization (RSO) submitted an application to the BLM to establish an ecosanctuary on approximately 15,000 acres of land in western Montana secured by RSO through contracts and leases with local landowners. The RSO application lands are located in three separate units varying from two to eight miles from the town of Drummond.
“The Missoula Field Office is excited about the prospect of working with RSO to provide a humane, high quality life for excess horses from the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro program,” said Tim La Marr, Acting Field Manager for the Missoula Field Office.
“Horses that would potentially reside at the ecosanctuary would primarily be older geldings,” he added.
The environmental assessment analyzes two action alternatives. The first alternative considers the RSO proposal to support up to 325 wild horses. The second alternative is based on public scoping, ecological conditions, wildlife issues, and wild horse welfare. A carrying capacity assessment of the lands jointly conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and the BLM determined the parcels could support approximately 97 horses. Both alternatives would entail some supplemental feeding during winter.
If the proposal is approved, the BLM would sponsor the ecosanctuary at a funding level comparable to what it pays for the care of wild horses on long-term pastures in the Midwest. The ecosanctuary would be publicly accessible and provide ecotourism and educational opportunities, which would help defray costs for operating the sanctuary. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor