What’s Next for the Wild Horses and Burros?

wild horsesThe Obama administration has thus far successfully largely distracted the public’s attention from the culpability of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and his Mineral Management Service (MMS) for the oil spill catastrophe. 

After a few disclosures about the lingering corruption at MMS and its ongoing oil industry ties, the media quickly shifted its focus to BP.

It is not that BP is not to blame. Of course it is. But surely, Salazar and DOI should be held accountable in their rush to "drill, baby, drill" in the Gulf for their astonishing disregard for the laws to protect wildlife and their habitat. Had they done their job, the oil spill would not have occurred and the animals in the Gulf would not be suffering so. 

Undoubtedly, the administration knows this. Which may explain why Salazar and his other DOI agency, Bureau of Land Management (BLM), are at least trying to appear to make nice with advocates and other citizens who care about wild horses and burros. 

The good news 

BLM Director Bob Abbey announced prior to the meeting that slaughter and euthanasia of wild horses and burros were "off the table", no longer options. Of course, under the Appropriations Act of 2010, BLM is prohibited from using any funds "for the destruction of healthy, unadopted, wild horses and burros in the care of the Bureau of Land Management or its contractors or for the sale of wild horses and burros that results in their destruction for processing into commercial products". It appears Congress will continue the same prohibition in 2011.

But still, at one time slaughter and euthanasia were BLM’s preferred means of managing wild horses and burros.

horses to be slaughteredAnd, when the discredited Wyoming state Rep. Sue Wallis stood during the Denver meeting to discuss a proposed partnership with BLM to slaughter America’s wild horses to feed to school children, she was shut down.

Of course, commercial horse slaughter for human consumption is illegal in the U.S. and what would BLM tell school children: "Your lunch today is an American icon, a wild horse (or burro), that just days ago, roamed free in the west, supposedly protected by law, part of a close knit band or family and a symbol of our western heritage and freedom?"   

Also, it was announced at the Denver meeting that the Wild Horses and Burros Advisory Board would fill two open positions with an animal welfare representative and a member of the public with knowledge of equines. It remains to be seen who will be selected, but it seemed promising. 

Is this a public relations ploy? 

Is this part of an administration effort to keep the lid on lawsuits, charges or complaints about BLM’s violations of the Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act, the environmental laws like National Environmental Policy Act, and its gross mismanagement, deceptions and cruelty in the handling of wild horses and burros? 

With the disaster in the Gulf only getting worse, the administration cannot afford to have the public reminded of Salazar’s incompetence and willful disregard for wildlife and the environment. Just as he ignored laws to protect wildlife in the Gulf, Salazar, a horse slaughter proponent, who has said wild horses don’t belong on public lands, has run over laws to protect wild horses and burros.

Abbey announced prior to the Denver meeting a partnership with the U.S. Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution to engage the public in a "dialogue" and seek "in depth" public comments about Salazar’s Plan to move wild horses and burros to continue to round up and remove wild horses and burros from public lands and put them in "preserves", "pastures" or feedlots in the East and midwest in non-reproducing herds where they are likely to become ill or die from the change in diet and confinement in "pastures" or feedlots and will certainly soon be extinct. 

The continuing roundups have left fewer and fewer horses and burros on the public lands, and there is serious concern many bands and herds are no longer genetically viable. Indeed, Salazar’s plan calls for sterilization of mares and stallions that remain on the range and even creation of non-reproducing populations on public lands. This despite the mandate of the Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act, 16 U.S.C. Sec. 1331 et seq. that these animals are "components" of the public lands that should remain free-roaming and free from "harassment" and "capture" and managed at the "minimal feasible level". Sterilizing mares or stallions and certainly herds not only jeopardizes their survival as a species and genetic viability but destroys free-roaming behavior where they form bands or families. 

The Salazar Plan ridiculed by advocates as creating Salazoos for wild horses and burros, has been reduced to writing in the Wild Horse Strategy Development Document. It is short on details, more of a splashy advertisement to sell Salazar’s Plan to Congress and the public than a serious effort to solicit input. The Cloud Foundation has called the strategy plan "unsubstantial… designed to manipulate the public and marginalize the opposition to the Salazar Plan for wild horses and burros". 

The Cloud Foundation has reported that BLM also hired "spin doctors", a public relations firm, Kearns and West, to help obtain Congressional approval for Salazar’s Plan. Indeed, the firm’s senior mediator, J. Michael Harty, facilitated the Denver meeting. Kearns and West has worked for other government agencies including MMS, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to help them accomplish their policy objectives such as energy or other development plans.

Another customer is PG&E, involved in the Ruby Pipeline natural gas project which as Cloud Foundation put it, is "threatening public lands and five public herds with environmental devastation from Wyoming to Oregon." 

That doesn’t bode well for real change in the way BLM has dealt with the public. It does not portend a "dialogue" with "in depth" public input.

But it is different than the strategy laid out in 2008 BLM meeting notes where BLM considered ways to keep the public away from round ups and the killing and sales of healthy horses and burros and planned to brand protests as "eco-terrorism".  Now, instead, BLM hope to appear to be working with the public.    

Here is the financial cost to taxpayers for the Salazar Plan to  devastate wild horses and burros which make up less than .5% of grazing animals on public lands:

  •In FY 2008, the cost of rounding up and holding these animals was approximately 81.3% of the $36,201,000 budget for the total wild horse and burro program. The BLM wild horse adoption program consumed another 13% of the total budget, leaving a meager 5.8% for monitoring and managing herd areas, census, and compliance inspections. (BLM report – 2010 Budget Justification)

 •The 2009 budget was $40,613,000 with the increase used for more roundups and holding costs. (BLM report – 2010 Budget Justification)

•In FY 2010 there was a substantial increase in the budget for the wild horses and burros program for a total of $67,486,000 with the entire additional $26,873,000 to be used for rounding up 12,000 horses and holding what will be a total of about 40,000 horses in pens. (BLM report – 2010 Budget Justification)

•For FY 2011 BLM has requested an additional $12 million apparently to defray the costs of holding wild horses and burros in corrals and long term holding facilities and then an additional $42.5 million for the first of seven "preserves", "pastures" or feedlots in the midwest or east.

BLM has already rejected a moratorium on roundups

Even before the Denver meeting, Abbey rejected a moratorium on wild horse and burro roundups, insisting the scheduled roundups would continue.  This despite thousands of letters, emails and calls to Congress, the White House and DOI to end the roundups. This despite the consensus among the public present at the Denver meeting there should be a moratorium on roundups until there is an accurate census and current determination of appropriate management levels (AMLs) of horses and burros that can be supported on the range.

wild horsesAs Vicki Tobin, co-founder and vice-president of Equine Welfare Alliance pointed out, "Six months or one year will not create a crisis and will give the BLM time to move forward with accurate scientific data."

Abbey himself said the BLM would consider ways to make more forage available for wild horses and burros and assure the appropriate management levels are based on the best available science. If that is true, how can BLM proceed with roundups until that has been done?  

What else the Salazar Plan says

The Plan document confirms roundups as well as aggressive sterilization remain a centerpiece of BLM’s management of the wild horses and burros. Coupled with that is a focus on increasing adoptions and also on turning horses and burros over for use in a wide variety of organizations and programs. It is unlikely these animals could be protected from sales including for slaughter.  There is, in fact, mention in the Plan, albeit casually, that sales, the "customer base", for wild horses and burros should be expanded. In effect, removal from the range remains the goal.

And that is exactly what the cattle industry demanded at the Denver meeting. The industry receives a substantial taxpayer subsidy from livestock grazing on public lands. The cattle industry pays $1.35 per animal under 18,000 grazing permits and leases on 258 million acres of public lands.  Grazing livestock on public lands is a "$132 million loss to the American taxpayer each year and independent economists have estimated the true cost at between $500 million and $1 billion dollars a year."   

        Census, AMLs and other legal technicalities 

BLM has over the years shown little regard for the limits on its discretion to remove wild horses and burros under the WFRHBA. There is supposed to be an accurate population count and determination of appropriate management levels, a finding of overpopulation. BLM’s management of the wild horses and burros has focused on round up and removal and not on maintaining them as "components" of the public lands, free roaming, and managed at the "minimal feasible level" free from "harassment" and "capture".

wild horsesThe Plan document doesn’t address serious questions about the census taken of wild horses and burros, whether the numbers are even remotely accurate or have been exaggerated to enable round up of even more horses.

The plan document doesn’t address serious questions about whether the assessments of the range conditions are accurate or outdated, simply exaggerated or even fabricated as an excuse to remove wild horses and burros. There is only lip service to using the best science available for these census determinations and range assessments.

          Horses and burros returned to the range – in "pastures"?

It is telling that one option BLM offers is to "[c]reate preserves on HAs or HMAs which currently have no animals on them." The idea would be to return either reproducing or non-reproducing herds to herd areas where they were at one time. If wild horses and burros can be returned to herd areas or herd management areas, then why were they removed, even zeroed out, in the first place? And why must they live in "preserves" which Salazar has said can mean "pastures" or feedlots? Why shouldn’t they live as the law requires in herd areas as "components" of the public lands, free-roaming and managed at the "minimal feasible level"?   

And why consider returning the wild horses and burros only to HAs or HMAs with no animals? Why not return them to their herd areas even if there are other animals including cattle and sheep?

           What about livestock grazing?

The plan document doesn’t propose that if range degradation and lack of water are truly of concern, then cattle and sheep grazing should be restricted. There is no discussion in the Plan document about phasing out livestock grazing permits. (The BLM only mentions voluntary relinquishment of permits or private purchasers who would use the rights for horses and burros.) BLM doesn’t answer the question as to why environmental assessments relied on to justify roundups rarely mention livestock grazing at all, let alone as a substantial cause of any range degradation or use of water.

Wild horses are outnumbered by cattle at least 200 to 1. In 1990, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found the range was in the best condition it had been in during the past century. The GAO found any degradation was the result of livestock grazing and suggested removal of some cattle, not necessarily wild horses and burros.  

But BLM never mentions this finding.


One section of the Plan proposes to "[i]ncrease the Wild Horse and Burro Program’s transparency; improve communications and visibility." BLM offers to keep its website current and make it more accessible. 
All nice, but what does it mean?
BLM also offers to generate "standardized" reports about roundups, adoptions, sales (there’s that word again) and "facilities".
Okay, but what information would the reports contain? 
BLM proposes what appears to be a glossy ad campaign to convince the public of its humane treatment of animals though it promises to develop a "structured approach" to create a program to monitor animal welfare and periodically solict input from veterinarians’ groups especially APHIS  on its roundups, holding facilities, and "pastures. (Yes, APHIS, the USDA agency that "regulates" puppy mills and other  breeders and dealers, and animals held for entertainment, research and the like….Has BLM ever been to an APHIS-regulated puppy mill?)   

wild horsesThis is the same BLM that just a few months ago threw out the 11,000 or more public comments concerning the Calico roundup, ignored the plaintiffs who brought a lawsuit to try to stop the roundup, disregarded the judge’s warning that BLM’s policy of rounding up and holding wild horses in long term facilities may be illegal. Instead, BLM pushed ahead to use helicopters to run down nearly 2,000 horses in the dead of winter in the Nevada mountains, forcing them to run miles over rough, icy terrain with deadly and devastating results. The reasons given for the roundup were based on outdated and even blatantly false assessments. (For a comprehensive look at the history and politics behind the Calico roundup and more, visit www.americanherds.blogspot.com and for a look at the terrible illness and suffering these animals now endure, visit http://humaneobserver.blogspot.com/)   

So forgive me if I am skeptical about this sketchy plan for better communications. 

Ideas presented at the Denver meeting 

Noted wildlife ecologist Craig Downer presented an idea of creating reserves or natural areas designed to conserve wild horses and burros and where they could roam free. He also told attendees at the Denver meeting of the importance of wild horses and burros to the western ecosystem. Both of Mr. Downer’s presentations are attached below for downloading.

Ginger Kathrens, founder and volunteer executive director of Cloud Foundation, also offered proposals for working with BLM. Elyse Gardner offers a look at the presentations made at the Denver meeting. Will BLM really consider any of this?

In the Strategy Plan document  there is a survey soliciting public input. Here are some ideas for BLM:

1. Put a moratorium on further roundups until a plan for future management of wild horses and burros is in place.

2. Amend land use plans and identify herd areas and herd management areas where wild horses and burros can be returned to live free-roaming in bands or families to be managed at the "minimal feasible level".  

3. Designate ranges, reserves or refuges that are managed principally to conserve wild horses and burros and return or move wild horses and burros to these areas as a preferred alternative to sanctuaries, preserves or adoption.  There are also ideas for places somewhere between living in the wild and a Salazar "pasture" or feedlot. Madeleine Pickens’ plan and Soldier Meadows are 2 ideas that should be considered and developed.  

4. Amend the WFRHBA and BLM regulations to mandate herds of wild horses and burros remain genetically viable and self-sustaining.

5. Amend WFRHBA and BLM regulations to make sure land use plans provide that wild horses and burros are considered as an integral part of the system of the public lands and have been provided for comparably with other uses of the public lands.

6. Facilitate keeping wild horses and burros on public lands by changing boundaries, adding contiguous lands, using corridors or fencing to facilitate migration, providing forage, developing water resources and preserving predators.

7. Amend the WFRHBA and BLM regulations to require use of the best science available and state of the art technology for census counts and range assessments including AML determinations.   

8. Amend WFRHBA to eliminate use of sterilization for wild horses or burros that are not held in private sanctuaries or for adoption.

9. Amend WFRHBA and BLM regulations to require reporting and environmental assessments concerning roundups to include analysis of livestock grazing in herd areas and herd management areas and consider as a serious alternative the reduction of livestock grazing.

10. Increase reporting and public participation and access to information about census counts, range assessments including AML determinations, roundups, holding, injuries, deaths, care and treatment, including designating independent humane observers that would be present for all roundups and during holding and transport. 

11. Amend WFRHBA and BLM regulations to specify requirements for humane treatment and care, and specifically ban use of helicopters and other aerial devices for roundups except in the event of an emergency, and the killing of healthy horses, and increase criminal penalties for violations of the WFRHBA. 

12. Amend WFRHBA and BLM regulations to repeal the Burns-Reid Amendment that has meant the sale of thousands of wild horses for slaughter and prohibit the transfer of wild horses and burros if there is a risk they will be sent to slaughter.  

You may have other ideas such as promoting eco-tourism in wild horse and burros areas and increasing education about these animals. Let BLM know your ideas! If we don’t speak up, there is a danger these animals will be lost forever in the fierce competition for the natural resources of our public lands. As the Equine Welfare Alliance warned, "The clock is ticking against America’s wild horses….A plan that preserves the herds at manageable levels must be developed and implemented before the last of our wild horses and burros are rounded-up and become a closed chapter in our American heritage."  Pass this link onto everyone you know who will help save the wild horses and burros!








One thought on “What’s Next for the Wild Horses and Burros?”

  1. Janet Ferguson says…

    Thank you for this comprehensive review at this time.

    I just came across the minutes of the Resource Advisory Council on the BLM “Nevada” page (for Ely/Winnemucca District).

    While I do not understand what this council does, or if there are others like it for the State of Nevada depending on the locations, I was severely disheartened to read about their strong wish to give the wild horses and burros the boot, the suggestion made in one of the minutes from 2009 that the slaughter be reintroduced, and the lack of public attendance. Hopefully I can learn more about who they are.

    They have a wild horse and burro subcommittee and Gene Seidlitz seems to attend all the meetings.

    I am just beginning to explore this and to figure out what they “do” and who they are.

    They seem to be a “force against the horse.” You can find a lot of information on the status of a lot of the energy projects there. There is also mention of a lawsuit from the state regarding horses that they responded to . I wonder what THAT consisted of???

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