[Ed. Note: For more information, read The Stampede to Oblivion.]
I-Team Investigators on KLAS, Channel 8, Las Vegas
While it's rare to get a BLM employee to say what they really think, an email from BLM Ecologist Cameron Bryce spells out his belief. It reads, "Wild horses do not belong in western ecosystems," and that "The 1971 Horse and Burro Act was based on emotions, not science."
Saturday the Bureau of Land Management begins the latest in a sweeping series of wild horse roundups. This one will capture a few hundred mustangs from a vast area around Winnemucca, Nevada.
Critics say the BLM is putting the long-term survival of wild horses at risk by disturbing the genetic viability of the herds.
BLM has a tough job -- managing millions of acres of public land for competing, often conflicting uses. When it comes to wild horses, it looks as if BLM has decided to make its life a bit easier by just getting rid of them altogether. Instead of merely thinning the herds, which is what the bureau has done since horses became protected in 1971, the bureau is on a roundup rampage that could threaten the survival of horses in the wild.
Residents of Cold Creek overwhelmingly opposed a 2007 round up of wild horses and burros in the Spring Mountains because, they argued, there was and is ample forage and water for the animals and the range itself is healthy. BLM ignored their objections and gathered hundreds of horses anyway.
Since then, assorted stragglers who avoided capture have returned to the area, but longtime horse watchers say the family units and individual bands were decimated, which seems to have triggered an almost desperate reproduction surge. Rhea Little was amazed to see a 30-year-old mare get pregnant. "She had a baby because they feel like they are going to go extinct, so they start breeding," she said.
BLM is spending $30 million to round up 12,000 horses all over the west in what seems like a greatly accelerated effort, not to merely to thin the herds, which is what BLM has always done, but to eliminate horses altogether. Already, more than 20 million acres of public land set aside by law in 1971 as range for horses has been made horse free.
BLM admits the current effort will eliminate half of Nevada's herd management areas. "We are going to pull those horses out as a proactive measure," said BLM Ely District Spokesman Chris Hanefeld. "Basically zeroing it out."
"It's totally in-your-face extremism. It's a bold faced attempt to obliterate. They cut them down to such low numbers that they are just going to become inbred," said former BLM Ranger Specialist Craig Downer.
Horse advocates like Downer, an ecologist who formerly worked for BLM, say the real danger is to the long-term genetic viability of the herds. For example, the next roundup near Winnemucca will reduce the population from more than 400 horses to a mere 23. BLM's own experts say that number is too low to be genetically viable. This summer, BLM targeted the famous Cloud Herd of Montana.
Horse advocates say the roundup puts the remaining horses at risk. "What makes this very dangerous is when you have a small band of horses and you take 60 out of 190, to argue that you aren't affecting the genetic viability of that herd -- there isn't an equine science person in the country, I think, that would make that argument," said horse advocate Jerry Reynoldson.
Reynoldson alleges that no one at BLM is studying the genetic viability issue as the pace of the roundups accelerates. Wrangler John Phillips, one of BLM's very first wild horse specialists, says its even worse, the agency knows it is courting disaster. "BLM will probably never say that because the numbers never say that. But everybody knew it. The numbers are getting too low genetically and they know that," he said.
Interior Secretary and former cattle rancher Ken Salazar announced weeks ago that public lands will be swept clean of wild horses, with a few herds left as exceptions, and that he wants to spend $90 million to transfer the mustangs to private-land preserves in the east where they would be sterilized.
Wild horse advocates think it's very telling for BLM to remove horses from the west, stick them in storage in the east and make sure they don't reproduce. One hint of things to come occurred this summer when mustang advocates sued in federal court to stop a BLM roundup in Colorado. They won. The judge agreed that BLM's facts and figures were arbitrary and that horses have a legal right to remain on the public range.
Horse advocates now think that court may be the only way to stop the massive roundups and to prevent what could be a catastrophe. "If you continue to put this off and don't try to get to the bottom of what this is leading to, we are going to find a number of these herds threatened. We may eliminate the wild horses inadvertently," said Reynoldson.
BLM continues to say that it wants to maintain wild mustangs on public range, but in a much more limited way. While it's rare to get a BLM employee to say what they really think, an email from BLM Ecologist Cameron Bryce spells out his belief. It reads, "Wild horses do not belong in western ecosystems," and that "The 1971 Horse and Burro Act was based on emotions, not science."
This is exactly the kind of hostility BLM's critics have long suspected when it comes to wild horses. We thank Mr. Bryce for leveling with us.