The line snaked through the museum lobby, folded back on itself, and split into two, between those who were wise enough to pick up a ticket beforehand and those who were not. At one point, an official held up her hand and said the show might be sold out. Surprised and urgent murmurings rippled through the crowd. This was an affair no one wanted to miss.
The astonishing part? On the docket for the Oct. 23 event were four relatively unknown scientists and one conservationist. But the panel was set to discuss an issue that has a profoundly storied history in our country. Few topics have been more controversial or have stirred such intense emotions as that of the evening’s agenda: the Bureau of Land Management’s program to manage wild horses and burros.
In the end, organizers decided to open up the back wall in the Sky Room of Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, officially overselling the event, and allowing entry to everyone. It was an apt metaphor: the very fact that so many people ardently want to weigh in on the issue is the reason it’s been such a morass for years.
Even after 15 years of working in the world of wild horses, “learning about the layers to this issue has been ongoing,” said Celeste Carlisle, who sat on the panel representing Return to Freedom, a nonprofit wild horse advocacy group and sanctuary in Lompoc, California. “Honestly … I really feel like I’m still scratching the surface, I’m still learning about another layer, another complexity, another viewpoint. It’s almost shocking in its complexity, I gotta say … You’ve got this history of tensions between the different groups, that have set up this real, almost hate-driven clash.”
The museum event came on the heels of a year for big news in wild horses. Horse Rich & Dirt Poor, a movie that was a strong basis for the evening, has been circulating widely and picking up official selection awards at film festivals. The film contrasts breathtaking cinematography with a dire report on BLM rangeland health, in a production presented by The Wildlife Society.
In April, a diverse, unexpected coalition of stakeholders released a report. Coming from an unprecedented alliance including the Humane Society of the United States, American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and American Farm Bureau Federation, the group put forth a “pathway forward” plan. It is touted to eliminate the threat of slaughter for thousands of free-roaming horses and shrink the size of herds primarily through expanded fertility controls on the range. Critics say the program continues potentially unabated the capture of mustangs across 10 Western states and could allow for sterilization of mares — a hot-button issue with horse protection
Congress added to the initiative’s momentum with the Sept. 26 approval of a bill by the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee based on the program to include a potential $35 million increase to the strapped budget of the BLM wild horse and burro program.
There’s a sense that finally, animal advocates, ranchers, and agencies might find themselves marching in step toward a common goal.
Not so, say a well-entrenched and long-term coalition of wild horse advocates. These groups and others in the field of wildlife ecology believe that behind the new efforts remain faulty bases and logic. They say there’s at best an unwillingness to look at other options that will actually address the issue. At worst, the plans will lead to the extinction of America’s wild horses.
The Bureau of Land Management is in charge of 245 million acres or one-tenth of America’s land base. Of that space, 26.9 million acres currently are set aside for wild horses, in what are known as herd management areas (HMAs). Across the 10 Western states, the carrying capacity is 27,000 horses, says the agency, yet an estimated 88,000 horses currently inhabit BLM land.
The majority — 47,000 horses — roam in Nevada. But, according to BLM calculations, that number should be just under 13,000. Carrying capacity is also known as appropriate management levels, or AML, a topic hotly debated.
Sitting on the Oct. 23 panel was Alan Shepherd, the BLM National Wild Horse & Burro On Range Branch Chief, who has been working in this field since 1991. He says the impacts of horses on public lands are grave, coming to a head, and reaching an irreversible stage.
“There’s a lot of history about different collapses of populations due to overgrazing and overpopulation. We’ve known all along that something bad could happen if allowed to,” he said. “And unfortunately, due to not being able to place animals and do the management we need to do on the ground, we’re making impacts to the public lands and habitat that may never respond again.”
The BLM’s answer through the years has been to remove horses from the range, through gathers, most often with helicopters. The hope is that the horses brought in from the range will be adopted by private citizens. Back in the ’70s, during the nascent years of the BLM program, this plan worked. The number of horses captured was about equal to the number adopted. Nowadays, this is no longer true. Approximately 46,00 horses remain in captivity and nearly 70% of the program budget, $57.6 million, goes toward the care of off-range wild horses and burros.
Moreover, Shepherd and many ecologists say the population continues to grow exponentially at an estimated 18% to 20% per year and shows no sign of stopping.
In October, at a conference in Fort Collins, Colorado, BLM acting director William Perry Pendley warned environmental journalists that the greatest problem facing the BLM today are wild horses and burros, saying they “are causing havoc” on federal lands. Addressing the issue, he said, will take $5 billion and 15 years.
Another Oct. 23 panelist, Jim Sedinger, has been studying the “havoc.” An avian population ecologist, he and his team of graduate students recently finished seven years of field work studying the impacts of horses and livestock on sage grouse habitat. A big focus for him are the meadows that comprise only 1% to 2% of BLM land. As key sources of water, “everyone uses these spaces,” he said.
“That’s the problem with horses,” Sedinger said. “Horses use these places on basically a daily basis. They destroy the vegetation, they cause a lot of physical damage, and ultimately cause these meadows to become strained.”
We see the same impact from livestock, he says, but we have ways to manage livestock whereas we don’t for horses, at the moment. To reduce horse impact, people are turning to fertility control as a way to manage numbers long-term. Carlisle, who has been working since 2005 with Return to Freedom, has been actively practicing a fertility program on the horses at its sanctuary using porcine zona pellucida (PZP), a contraceptive vaccine with a long and proven history. Carlisle says they’ve had great success stabilizing the population of approximately 540 horses over five different facilities. Currently the organization is compiling the lessons and data from the program with the hope to extrapolate for use on public lands.
Return to Freedom participated in the “path forward” coalition, and has taken a lot of heat for doing so, with critics claiming they have “sold out” and supporters distancing themselves from the organization. Carlisle is sensitive to this reaction, but believes that something must be done.
“These animals will suffer … I think about what’s happening in Australia right now, with the brumbies. The government is flying overhead and shooting them … out of desperation,” she said. “We will get there and it will be our own fault that we just argued … and held our lines, without a deeper understanding of the true ramifications.”
Horses aren’t the only potential victims; the entire ecosystem is at risk, says Tina Nappe, a conservationist on the panel whose family moved to the region in 1941.
“Conservation has been left out of the conversation on this topic,” she said at the museum event. Moreover, “the future is in the smallest species.” She is concerned that because of the human tendency to want to protect large species, usually mammals, vital parts of the ecosystem are being neglected.
For example, grasses are suffering, “because they can’t be grazed day after day. But somehow people don’t care,” Nappe told Moonshine Ink. “How can we get people to say we want to preserve our native grasses and our native plants. They just don’t have those cute looks, but they are the heart and soul of our Great Basin.”
Encapsulating the entire museum program, Nappe said, “We are going to lose our public lands.”
The evening in Reno was well-paced, cordial, and informative. It sent a powerful message about the imminent threat of wild horses on public lands. The evidence seemed incontrovertible — horses have to go.
But one panelist slated to be there was conspicuously absent — Greg Hendricks, the director of field operations for the American Wild Horse Campaign, an organization that stands in staunch opposition to the “path forward.”
THE NUMBERS DON’T ADD UP
“I was basically the counterpoint. You had a lot of people that want to reduce horses and say that horses are the reason for all the environmental degradation,” he said. “It was going to be six people against horses, and me being the only one for.”
Familiar with the Horse Rich movie, Hendricks and AWHC brought up to the panel organizers the lack of discussion on cattle.
To recap, BLM manages 245 million acres, with horses given 26.5 million acres via HMAs. Cattle, however, are permitted on a total of 155 million acres. In other words, Hendricks says, horses are allotted 10% of public lands while 60% is permitted for livestock, which means wild horses don’t have that much forage compared to cattle.
“Our concern was that there was no mention of livestock grazing in the movie, and we thought they should try to balance the presentation out,” he said. “We suggested they show our five-minute video where we talk about the discrepancy in allocations.”
The organizers declined to show the AWHC video, so the campaign decided against participating in the panel.
Erik Molvar, executive director of Western Watersheds Project, has also been a vocal critic of the Horse Rich & Dirt Poor movie. The movie is a “propaganda piece that has been put together to justify the federal government and livestock industry’s collective desire to scapegoat wild horses for rangeland health problems that are largely caused by domestic cattle and sheep,” he said. It was “designed intentionally to create a misapprehension on the part of the public that if horses are removed, then rangeland health on public lands will improve. That’s not true, if you don’t do anything about the much greater ecological impact of domesticated cattle and sheep, which are typically found on exactly the same land.”
Reason being, Molvar says, “it’s really a simple numbers game. Wild horses number in the tens of thousands. Livestock number in the millions.” Even when you adjust seasonality of time on the range for cattle, he says, livestock still have 15-times the grazing pressure on western public lands than wild horses.
Additionally, the impact of horses on the land have been grossly overstated, say advocates, that goes beyond the discrepancy in number of animals.
“Livestock have a different social structure and use of land than horses, because they have post-gastric stomachs, which requires them to be sedentary most of the time. It requires them to be in, at the edge of, or around water,” said Ginger Kathrens, filmmaker and founder of the Cloud Foundation, a Colorado nonprofit that advocates for letting nature call the shots in horse management. “The digestive tract of horses requires movement. Even in a small pasture, a horse will travel 5 miles a day.”
Thus, Kathrens says, to blame horses for damage to water sources, as Horse Rich & Dirt Poor does, is disingenuous. But most of the advocates hesitated to blame cattle and ranchers.
“I think ranching is a noble profession,” Hendricks said. “But the bottom line is this — it’s economics. And if you only have so much grass out there, there’s competition for it. Whether it’s wildlife, cows, sheep, or wild horses. So, trying to get everyone their fair share and to make sure we don’t over-utilize it’s a big challenge.”
Overall, doing gathers is not a viable long-term plan, say horse advocates, and the BLM is over-reliant on them to the detriment of other options.
Two overseeing organizations agreed, in part, with advocates via reports released within the last decade.
The National Academies of Science, hired by the BLM to do an assessment
of their wild horse and burro program, issued a report in 2013 that was sharply critical of the agency’s practices toward horses. Key points included that the wild horse and burro program didn’t use “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.” Additionally, the report said, the practice of removing horses, and not doing sterilization, was creating a vacuum. Actually, more horses are born, due to “compensatory reproduction.”
In 2016, the Department of the Interior’s Office of the Inspector General released a report that concluded that the “BLM does not have a strategic plan in place to manage the wild horse and burro populations … A long-term strategic plan is necessary to sustain land health, animal populations, and affordability.”
Take these two reports together and it’s imperative that the BLM’s actions get scrutinized, said R.T. Fitch, president/ co-founder of Wild Horse Freedom Federation, an advocacy group based in Texas. The roundups, or gathers, and adoptions may not be going as the BLM says they are, according to Fitch, and thus his organization did undercover work, deep-dive research into documents, and released a White Paper in 2017.
Carefully comparing records, the organization found that roundup databases didn’t correspond to the numbers of horses in long-term holdings. “The numbers didn’t match up,” he said, and that carries over to other areas as well.
“We count better than the BLM does,” Fitch said. “That’s one of my biggest gripes. There has never been a nonbiased accurate count made. We’re told there are 88,000 horses out on the range and the population doubles in size every four years. Biologically and scientifically that is not possible.”
For Kathrens, her work with the Cloud Foundation is about the families she’s seen ripped apart during gathers. There are better, more humane ways to control the population, including fertility control and linking smaller populations via wildlife corridors, she says, but “the BLM has always resisted managing on the range.”
For this advocate, a looming threat from BLM policy is the destruction of genetic viability of wild horses. The AML number of 27,000 is close to the number of horses that were on the range when the 1971 Act went into place, numbers believed to be close to extinction levels,
In a paper released by the Cloud Foundation, Kathrens wrote: “Most herds are not large enough to be considered viable, based on the research of E. Gus Cothran, the foremost equine geneticist in the U.S. It is a critical issue in many herds. Even in the Pryors, where there are no livestock, the range is not currently large enough to support a safely viable herd of at least 200 to 300 adult horses.”
According to Kathrens, reducing the number of horses in the wild could lead to a loss of genetic diversity and, “ultimately, the eventual extinction of this living legend.”
“We have to start thinking differently to maintain wild populations,” Kathrens said. “I’m a wildlife lover, and I appreciate the littlest to the largest. What struck me when I first started doing this work was how beautifully the horse fits into the ecosystem.”
The BLM does care about these horses, says Shepherd, but it’s going to take a lot of time and money to get management right. “I wouldn’t be in this profession if I didn’t care about what I did. I’m a wildlife biologist and habitat ecologist by training,” he said. “I care about the public lands and the wildlife. I care about the horses. I want to see the right thing for them. By no means would I say that anybody that’s in the horse program is anti-horse.”
Main Image Caption: CAPTIVE: An estimated 46,000 wild horses are held in captivity, with two-thirds in pasture on private and public land and the remainder in corrals such as these. The cost of care for captive wild horses is approximately $57 million, about 70% of the entire BLM budget for the wild horse and burro program. Shown here is the Wild Horse Corral Facility in Hines, Oregon, Jan. 31, 2017. Photo by Greg Shine/BLM