By George Knapp, KLAS-TV, on Tuesday's Horse
Apparently, the feds are tired of being eviscerated for their actions. Every time one of their hired wranglers is shown kicking a young colt, and every time a band of horses nearly collapses after being driven in terror by roaring helicopter blades over miles of rough terrain, BLM gets pummeled by an angry, horse-loving public.
It would not be much of a surprise if the Bureau of Land Management decides to hold its next wild-horse roundup out at the super-secret Area 51 military facility, maybe down in the underground bunkers where they keep the corpses of extraterrestrials. The way it looks, BLM has decided to turn the mustangs into a black program, a classified, off-limits, shadowy mystery, something no one in the government can talk about and no one in the civilian world can access.
An exaggeration? Not by much. In previous years, horse roundups could be viewed by just about anyone so long as the observers didn’t interfere. After all, the mustangs belong to the American public, the ranges where they live are public property, and the millions of dollars spent each year to capture and corral the animals are all taxpayer dollars. So why wouldn’t the public have a right to see what’s going on?
Because BLM doesn’t want you to, that’s why.
Over the past few years, BLM has tightened the screws on its roundups, making it more difficult for both the press and the general public to keep an eye on what unfolds during these inherently violent operations. Apparently, the feds are tired of being eviscerated for their actions. Every time one of their hired wranglers is shown kicking a young colt, and every time a band of horses nearly collapses after being driven in terror by roaring helicopter blades over miles of rough terrain, BLM gets pummeled by an angry, horse-loving public. Who needs that?
BLM tried out its new strategy during the disastrous Calico Hills roundup last winter. The bureau went ahead with the operation even though horse experts warned it was a bad idea to drive horses for miles and miles over snow-covered volcanic rocks and in the coldest time of the year. BLM went forward anyway, and to keep prying eyes to a minimum, it found the only private land inside a half-million acre ocean of public range. That’s the spot that became Roundup HQ. By putting most of the central operations on private property, BLM had total control of who was allowed to enter, and when. It made a point of inviting lots of cattle-friendly, pro-hunter emissaries to join the festivities, along with a small assortment of mainstream journalists and a few horse advocates. But still, BLM called the shots and put limits on which days would be available for observers.
The fact that the Calico roundup turned into the bloodiest in memory is not lost on BLM. Most of the 100-plus horses that died didn’t keel over at the gather site. Rather, they died slower deaths at a holding facility BLM had authorized near Fallon. And, wouldn’t you know it, that facility was also constructed on private land, which means BLM (through the land owner/contractor) can control access to the horses 24/7, which is exactly what it has done.
Before they were barred, horse advocates subsequently found dozens of mustangs with horrible wounds, inadequate food and water, and hooves that fell off from being run too hard. After a smattering of those stories hit the media, BLM decided it had enough. The Fallon corral is now completely off limits to everyone except BLM.
The privatization of the wild horse program has reached its zenith with the roundup now underway in Northern Nevada. BLM announced at the beginning that it planned to close off public access to the public lands where the horses live. This was done “for the good of the horses,” of course, and has nothing to do with BLM wanting to limit the bad press it gets every time one of its roundups results in the agonizing deaths of beautiful mustangs.
BLM can perhaps teach its fellow three-letter agency, the CIA, a thing or two about subterfuge. The current roundup in Northern Nevada is sort of a natural evolution of BLM’s spycraft tendencies. The bureau announced a few weeks ago that public lands in the vicinity of the Owyhee range would be off limits while the roundup was underway. BLM even declared air space over Owyhee would be closed to all traffic. Whether or not the bureau even has the authority to pull something like this is a question that needs to be answered in court one of these days, but shutting out the public from public lands with only the vaguest justification is pretty serious stuff. The last time I checked, BLM employees work for the taxpayers. The contractor who will be paid roughly a million dollars for the roundup is also working for the American taxpayer, but we’re not supposed to be able to see what they do? What the heck is the big secret out there in the high desert?
My own suspicion is that BLM doesn’t want to see video of any dead horses on the evening news. See, there were no dead horses on the Owyhee range, not until BLM started driving them like a bat out of hell across the desert. Once the horses started dying, BLM went to court and declared that the routine roundup, which had been in the planning stages for more than a year, is now an emergency rescue. Without BLM’s quick action, 75 percent of the horses would die horrible deaths, the agency claimed. But whatever emergency exists is there because of BLM’s own incompetence. Plus, it seems to spend more of its time trying to outwit horse advocates than taking care of the land.
The final move is a doozie. After horse advocates went back to federal court last week and got a judge to order BLM to allow for outside observers, BLM pulled yet another fast one.
The entire Owyhee gather operation was again put onto private land, and BLM then lifted the ban on visitors to the public range. How magnanimous. Except the horse people who tried to find the private ranch were not only given the runaround but were repeatedly warned that if they crossed onto the private property, they would be arrested. Sheriff’s deputies followed them wherever they roamed. This is heavy-handed, totally unnecessary bullshit, exactly what BLM has been doing over the past several years.
The public pays for those roundups, it pays BLM salaries, and it pays for the management of the public ranges. We have every right to be out there to watch what BLM is doing with our money and with the horses. Whether you care about wild horses or not, those are your dollars being spent.
Of the 600-plus horses captured this week, BLM admits 21 have died so far. Of course, we don’t know what the real numbers are. We’ll just have to take BLM’s word for it.
George Knapp is a Peabody Award-winning investigative reporter for KLAS-TV, Channel 8. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.