From Animal Law
As the new year begins, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) continues its roundup and removal in the Calico Mountain Complex of wild horses it is supposed to protect from "capture" and "harassment" and maintain as free roaming "components of the public lands". Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act, 16 U.S.C. §1331 et seq. (WFRHBA)
This despite a federal judge's warning that BLM's policy of rounding up and holding wild horses and burros in long term holding facilities may be found to be an illegal violation of WFRHBA. U.S. District Court Judge Paul L. Friedman recommended BLM cancel the roundup and removal pending resolution of the lawsuit.
Instead, BLM Director Bob Abbey ordered the roundup and removal of these wild horses to go forward as scheduled on December 28. The Equine Welfare Alliance reports that on "December 30th, the BLM invited members of the national press to view the round-up operations. Photos taken by a BLM contract photographer showed frightened horses in holding pens with sweat soaked coats generating clouds of vapor in the frigid air. The photos caused a storm of criticism from horse experts and were quickly removed." BLM is strictly limiting public and media access to the roundup and horses which are being taken to a holding facility in Fallon, Nevada. One adult horse and a foal have already died during this pogrom that will take up to 3 months. One observer reported several mares are now lame.
A disturbing report has surfaced that belies BLM's claims the wild horses must be removed from the Calico Complex Herd Management Areas because of overpopulation.
Under WFRHBA BLM must remove "excess" wild horses or burros. "Excess animals" in herd areas generally means those wild horses or burros "which must be removed... to preserve and maintain a thriving natural ecological balance", basically because of "overpopulation". §1332(f), 1333(b). The BLM "shall maintain a current inventory of wild free-roaming horses and burros... to... make determinations as to whether and where an overpopulation exists and whether action should be taken to remove excess animals; determine appropriate management levels [AMLs] of wild free-roaming horses and burros on these areas of the public lands; and determine whether appropriate management levels should be achieved by the removal or destruction of excess animals, or other options (such as sterilization, or natural controls on population levels)." §1333(b).
Glenna Eckel, BLM's Winnemucca Wild Horse & Burros specialist, testified on May 13, 2009 in a case brought by Western Watersheds Project against BLM officials to challenge a new grazing proposal. Eckels has been monitoring the impacts of wild horses in the Calico Complex herd management areas for the past 6 years. Her testimony disputes that there is an overpopulation of wild horses in these areas:
Page 796, Line 18, Answer from Eckel; "Well, I guess, honestly, I'm surprised that the number of horses that are out there, based on my monitoring data that I've done the last couple of years, that the monitoring data hasn't shown a higher utilization than what I've read. So I guess what I am thinking is that I'm not sure it would change my conclusion."
Line 24. Question; "Increasing the horses five times would not change your conclusion; is that right?"
Page 797, Line 1, Answer from Eckel; "Well, I think, again it boils down to that competition. And what I have seen, again based on the monitoring data, is that I would have expected different monitoring data than what I've collected, based on those numbers."
Page 809, Line 22, Question; "Okay. I believe, in your testimony, you made a statement that you were surprised at the number of horses that were out there, that the monitoring data hasn't shown higher utilizations than what you read?"
Page 810, Line 1, Answer from Eckel; "Correct".
Line 2, Question; "Could you just elaborate a little bit more on what you meant by that?"
Line 4-16, Answer from Eckel; "Sure. I guess what I mean is, given the March '08 census and the numbers we counted, I didn't have that knowledge prior to March '08. So the monitoring that I did and since the last gather, which was in 2004-2005, I was under the impression that we were at AML, those population estimates that we looked at earlier."
"And what surprises me is that now, knowing that we had - I can't remember what you gave it, a certain percentage over. But there's significantly more animals out there than what we thought were, so I would have expected the monitoring data to show higher levels of use than what I collected. And I guess I'm learning it's a big country, animals move".
Page 814, Line 18-21, Question; "What were the implications, in your mind, of the monitoring data that you collected? In other words, once you gathered it, what were your - perhaps "conclusions" is a better word."
Line 25, Answer from Eckel; "And at the time, again, like after the gather, I assumed that we were close to those population estimates of being under AML, and so the monitoring data was meeting management objectives that we had identified. And again, I was thinking we had a smaller population than I learned then in 2008." (emphasis added).
MacDonald points out, "The Calico Complex Environmental Assessments never mentioned Glenna's testimony or what she found about monitoring objectives being met....Instead, BLM buried the evidence and used old decisions to perpetuate the ‘Appropriate Management Levels' of wild horses in the area, some of which were set as far back as 1982."
BLM has refused to evaluate or adjust the AMLs used to decide the number of horses in the Calico Mountain Complex herd management areas that should remain. BLM was adamant "[a]djustment of the current AMLs will ...not be analyzed in this EA." Yet, the data, as MacDonald points out and as is obvious from the dates of the studies cited in the Environmental Assessment, is outdated. (See EA, Table 1 and on pp. 3, 4-5, Table 6 and accompanying text and on p. 33). The AMLs have not been supported by any current independent study of rangeland health. In effect, BLM offers dated studies and a few photos of small areas to claim there is "heavy utilization" of the range by wild horses that justifies a large scale removal, a direct contradiction of Eckel's evidence. (Anyone can take photos of small, isolated areas and claim it is proof of the condition of the whole.)
BLM also nowhere mentions the substantial numbers of cattle grazing in this area that would certainly affect the range and water availability.
Eckel's testimony is supported by Nevada wildlife ecologist Craig Downer who
toured the area this past year and photographed the wild horses and habitat. He
saw nothing to indicate the range could not support the current population.
Significantly, Glenna Eckel's testimony belies BLM's claim the population of
wild horses in this area exceeds 3,100. She is explicit that she found no
overpopulation, nothing to indicate the numbers of wild horses are anywhere near
the 3,100 claimed by BLM. Downer has questioned whether BLM is exaggerating the
census to justify removal of even more wild horses. For more on Downer's
evaluation and BLM's decision to round up and remove nearly 90% of the wild
horses in the Calico Mountain Complex...
MacDonald explains, "The last time these herds were gathered was in 2004-2005 when BLM removed 1,623 horses, gave 239 mares PZP and told the public they left an estimated 575 (though they actually only released 410 - the rest were just estimates)."
In 2007 BLM reported the population was 700+ wild horses.
Here is what happened next in BLM's dizzying numbers game: "In January, 2008, BLM...authorized a "range improvement" that turned out to be a fourth fence in Idaho Canyon - even though BLM admitted this fence might entrap wild horses and cause them to die if the gate wasn't opened before the winter snows arrived.
"The fence was needed because BLM authorized an increase from the old 300 head of cattle to 800 head with an eventual goal of running a 1,000 throughout the allotment. If that weren't enough, BLM also stated that every single Animal Unit Month (AUM) of forage on record would also be available for Temporary Non-Renewable cattle grazing as well. Of course, only if BLM determined this extra forage was suddenly available.
"...[T]he new proposal included a change in grazing rotations that would lock wild horses out of the best pasture with the most abundant water during the driest time of the year.
"When it came to wild horses populations, BLM stated there was 'little evidence of [wild horse] utilizations' and that, 'Given the relative few numbers of horses/burros, their impact on upland vegetation during the critical growing period will be minimal. This conclusion is supported by the fact that several upland monitoring sites established in the Warm Springs HMA are no longer monitored because very little or no use by wild horses/burros was documented at these sites.'"
In fact, these conclusions are consistent with Eckel's testimony.
MacDonald continues, "In the Soldier Meadows Allotment, one of the largest grazing allotments in the Calico Complex area, in 2008 BLM increased the AUMs for exclusive livestock use by an additional 1,104 AUMs, increased livestock numbers in key pastures at critical times of the year by almost 300% and included the potential to increase them by an additional 3,384 AUMs in the future. While BLM's analysis only examined the impacts of this increase at a 30% utilization level on key forage species, which they admitted could already cause potential competition with wild horses and wildlife in drought years and harsh winters, in BLMs final decision, they went ahead and also approved increasing the allowed utilization levels to 50% to accommodate the increased cattle usage."
Then, just months after finding wild horse populations are minimal in the Calico Mountain Complex, not even worth monitoring, and substantially increasing cattle grazing in one allotment, BLM claims as a result of an aerial census, there are now exploding numbers of wild horses in these herd management areas.
BLM would like everyone to believe the agency is just really bad at counting wild horses. MacDonald says BLM is also claiming "hundreds and hundreds of wild horses moved outside the [herd management areas] when the choppers arrived in 2004-2005 - but after the choppers left, the mustangs snuck back inside", thus accounting for the population increases.
The Ruby Pipeline
Other than increased cattle grazing, MacDonald points to another reason for BLM's claim there are more wild horses than there actually are:
"[A]t the Obama administration's behest, Secretary Salazar and Senator Reid have mandated BLM begin a "fast track" to getting all manner of energy development rammed through on public lands.
"Enter the Ruby Pipeline, a $3 billion dollar project that will span Oregon, Nevada, Wyoming and Utah and runs smack dab through the middle of the Calico Complex (not to mention the just rounded up Beaty's Butte HMA in Oregon as well as skirting Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge).
"On September 14, 2009, Ruby Pipeline, LLC. responded to a request by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission regarding issues surrounding the pipeline. On page 30 of 40, the Energy Commission asked Ruby to, "Discuss Ruby's approach to preventing problematic right-of-way reclamation due to wild horses and burros grazing, and provide a summary of discussions with the BLM addressing this issue."
"Ruby's response was, ‘Ruby will work with the BLM to minimize wild horse and burro grazing along the restored ROW for three years. Possible management actions would be to provide water sources away from the ROW, include low palatable plant species in the seed mix such as sagebrush, temporary fencing with gaps, and/or reduce wild horse populations following BLM policy in appropriate management areas." BLM wild horse and burrow resource specialists were consulted in developing this management approach.'"
"So BLM needs to "minimize grazing" along the Right-of-Way (ROW) for three years and may plant food horses and burros hate to eat in order to do it and/or 'reduce wild horse and burro populations' to accommodate it. And if you are wondering just what the heck they are talking about during that vague reference to the 'possible management actions to provide water sources away from the ROW', word on the street is, the Ruby Pipeline is going to blow right through and permanently impair at least one of the major summer water sources wild horses have been relegated too (from all those closed fences for exclusive livestock grazing in the pastures)."
What happens next?
If BLM says there are more wild horses than there actually are, then the agency can say, as it did in this roundup, that it must remove even more wild horses. And if it turns out Eckel was right and the census was much lower, which it likely was, BLM will have removed more wild horses than they were supposed to....And, if BLM continues to exaggerate the census, soon they will all be gone. Is that the idea?
Equine Welfare Alliance reports, "The BLM ....[has told] the media ... that 600 to 800 of the horses were to be returned to the wild when in fact, [its] official written plan calls for the return of only about 380 to their natural habitats." Indeed at one point the plan called for returning only 268 wild horses to the wild. But, really, will there be any left?