By Parker Lewis on Friends of Animals (FOA)
Hundreds of horses milled about the dreary lots of dirt dotted with feeding troughs. The BLM is taking families of horses, adept at surviving even in arid, hostile conditions, and moving them to this location – on the taxpayers’ bill. The only ones who benefit from this are businesses that want the horses’ land for cattle and sheep grazing, mining, geothermal energy, and natural gas.
At the southern edge of the sleepy town of Tonopah, Nevada is a Bureau of Land Management field office. Halfway between Reno and Las Vegas, Tonopah is an old frontier mining community. Abandoned mines dot the foothills along the interstate roadway.
It was late September, and the BLM had scheduled the Tonopah wild horse roundup over the course of three to four days, to remove all free-roaming horses and burros who had strayed from the Paymaster and Montezuma herd management areas. In addition, more horses were to be removed from inside the management areas. Combined, the two areas cover about 175,000 acres of federally managed land, with an estimated population of 130 horses and 60 burros. The BLM insists the numbers should be reduced to 40 horses and 10 burros -- less than one per thousand acres.
Only one day was allotted for public observation, and only 10 public observers (in a state of 2.5 million people) were allowed.
Experienced horse advocates Laura Leigh and Debbie Coffey arrived at the field office on the first day, at 6:30. I joined them. The only others present at that time were armed guards and their idling pickups. We, and the other observers who trickled in, were scrutinized, then invited into a small conference room. The ground rules were laid out. Questions were answered by the field office manager, Tom Seley. Also present was Craig Downer, an ecologist and former BLM employee. No liability waivers were produced; the initial briefing was casual and cordial.
After a brief, dusty drive behind BLM trucks, we arrived at a small hill overlooking vast expanses of arid and empty Nevada desert. I saw no horses. An armed guard photographed us, and our every step was carefully monitored by the BLM employees, who nearly outnumbered the public observers.
I could hear the helicopter, employed on a federal contract to chase the animals down. It seemed the roundups had been going on for several hours already; about a dozen horses were already corralled in pens.
The BLM cites lack of forage vegetation and water for the free-roaming animals as the main reason for their removal, as well as the degradation of rangeland resources resulting from an overpopulation of wild horses and burros. But Downer explained that the equids’ post-gastric digestive system actually improves the quality of the topsoil, and spreads seeds. Ruminant grazers such as cattle and sheep, Downer adds, “are by far the most numerous of hoofed animals in the Western rangelands, and therefore, to them accrues most of the responsibility.”
If the BLM believes that they are doing the horses any favors, removing them before they starve or die from dehydration, I saw no evidence of their logic. The horses were healthy in both weight and energy levels in the middle of September, after a long desert summer.
Seley granted a photojournalist from the Reno Sun access to the trap site at the foot of the hill – the spot from which we were allowed to observe the activities. But Laura Leigh, another journalist who presented press credentials, was denied that access.
I waited as Leigh phoned the BLM’s senior public affairs specialist in Washington to explain the situation. The roundup stopped; Seley then allowed us to descend and observe horses being loaded into unmarked trailers from about 200 feet. Troy Cattoor and the Utah-based Cattoor Livestock Roundup team ushered the horses into the trailers by pestering them with what appeared to be plastic bags attached to the end of long, pliable sticks. When the last trailer was loaded, Seley and his personnel invited us to follow BLM trucks to the temporary holding area – pens atop an abandoned mining operation that used heap leaching (cyanide) to recover gold deposits -- where horses were sorted and assessed before their journey into long-term holding.
The next day, Leigh and Coffey accompanied me to the National Wild Horse and Burro Center at Palomino Valley, some 20 miles North of Reno. It had the feel of a prison. Hundreds of horses milled about the dreary lots of dirt dotted with feeding troughs.
The BLM is taking families of horses, adept at surviving even in arid, hostile conditions, and moving them to this location – on the taxpayers’ bill. The only ones who benefit from this are businesses that want the horses’ land for cattle and sheep grazing, mining, geothermal energy, and natural gas.
Jim Diez, a range technician for the BLM, was present during the roundup and our subsequent visit to the temporary holding pens. I asked Diez if the BLM is catering more to special interests than to the herds with which they are mandated to protect and preserve. Diez answered, “This is America’s land; this is multi-use land.”
Of the Battle Mountain district (where Tonopah is located), 27% of the land, according to BLM figures, is used by cattle and sheep ranchers who pay just $1.35 a month per cow or per five sheep. Barrick Gold operates several mines in Nevada which draw tremendous amounts of water from the aquifer. Their Round Mountain mine, close to the Paymaster and Montezuma management areas, uses water that would normally feed the plants horses eat and the natural springs from which they drink.
The roundups in Nevada and the other western lands are slowly devastating the communities of free-roaming horses and burros of the United States. So far, legal pressure to stop this has had mixed success at best. Ending the roundups can be achieved, however, and with your support, Friends of Animals will be working on the issue in the months ahead.