800+ Montana Horses Face Uncertain Future

Updates provided by Jan Falstad of the Billings Gazette

No Mention of Money Back to Donors

Buyers crowd into the sale barn for a public auction of more than 800 of James Leachman's horses at a ranch south of Billings on Saturday ~ photo by Casey Riffi

The sale of 829 horses on a Crow Reservation ranch that was touch-and-go for weeks ran smoothly on Saturday.

The sale, believed to be the first of horses impounded by the Bureau of Indian Affairs for trespassing on tribal lands, attracted 1,000 people, including 200 to 300 buyers to the ranch 16 miles east of Billings.

BIA Regional Director Ed Parisian said trespassing cases just never get this far, so this sale is special.

“If your livestock is trespassing, you move them. We’ve never been here before,” Parisian said.

The mares with last year’s babies brought $300 to $800 even without registration papers with the American Quarter Horse Association.

The horses formerly belonged to James Leachman of Billings and were seized by the BIA after he failed to move them off the Home Place ranch. Leachman had until 8 a.m. Saturday to pay the bills to round up his horses, feed them and prepare them for the sale. When he didn’t, the sale started as scheduled at 10 a.m.

The rest of the horses will be sold as fast as one a minute Sunday starting at 10 a.m.

Despite the depressed horse market, more than 200 buyers from a dozen states plus Canada showed up for Saturday morning’s sale of 829 quarter horses on a ranch south of Billings.

Bureau of Indian Affairs regional director Ed Parisian said there are too many on lookers in the sales ring.

“There are people who want to buy, but can’t get in to buy,” he said.

Last month the BIA seized the Leachman horses for trespassing on Crow tribal land. Parisian said this is the first trespassing sale in Montana.

The bidding began at 10:10 a.m. after a prayer in the Crow Indian language and mares were going for about $300 to $500.

It was standing-room-only in the area where Rick Young Auctioneers of Absarokee was selling horses at a clip of one every 60 seconds. More than a dozen people were watching the sale on a television in a large tent nearby.

Late Saturday morning, a pair of Canadians led the active bidding.

“You’re never going to see these many foundation-bred Quarter horses in one place again,” said Cory Wilson, of Meadow Lake, Alberta.

He and another buyer drove 900 miles for the horses and hope to fill a tractor-trailer rig with 40 horses to drive back to Canada. They paid a top bid of $800 for a roan mare at 10:30 a.m.

R.T. ~ “I have watched this case since the beginning and when all is said done, it is a heartbreaker on so many levels.  People from across the country rallied to help these horses survive when Leachman criminaly turned his back on them and shut down his moral compass.  For months both local and distant organizations and individuals reached into their pockets to feed these horses and now that the Crow are putting them up for sale there is no mention of the tens of thousands of dollars that were donated to keep these horses alive being returned.  Nice rosey, fat deal for the Crow don’t you think?

And although I am confident that many of these horses will find good homes due their strong blood lines and high prices being paid but the bulk will surely make it across the boarder to the slaughter plants in Canada, it is heartbreaking.

One single human being started this avalanche of equine suffering moving and even though decent folks managed to hold the disaster at bay for a bit, in the end, they get kicked in face…not by the horses but by the Crow.  Totally reprehensible.”

Call on Congress Now to De-Fund the Wild Horse Roundups

Commentary by Laura Allen of Animal Law Coalition

The Roundups Need to STOP

Twin Peaks Horses prior to helicopter stampede and capture ~ photo by Terry Fitch

It is no secret that BLM’s program for the wild horses and burros is to round them up, remove them from the range and warehouse them in holding facilities. What is a mystery is why taxpayers would foot the bill for managing wild animals in this way.

For Fiscal Year (FY) 2010, from October 1, 2009 to September 30, 2010, the BLM removed 10,137 horses and 476 burros; 443 mares were treated with the fertility control drug PZP. The total FY 2010 program expenditures were $65 million, of which $44.6 million was spent on roundup, removal and holding.

So far during FY 2011, which began on October 1, 2010, the BLM has removed 5,825 horses and 75 burros and PZP-treated 469 mares. So far in FY 2011, $4.5 million has been spent on roundup and removal; holding costs for FY 2011 are projected to be $38.5 million.

Another 4,686 wild horses and 150 burros are slated for capture and removal from herd management areas this year, 2011. If BLM continues on its present course for FY2011-FY2012, the agency will roundup and remove from the range 28,000 wild horses and burros at a total cost of almost $223M over the life of these animals. This would bring the total number of wild horses and burros held in holding facilities to nearly 46,000. (Though BLM appears unable to keep track of the wild horses and burros trapped in its holding facilities.)

Ginger Kathrens, founder of The Cloud Foundation, recently told the BLM, “Please consider that the removal of a mustang costs already strapped American taxpayers over $2,000 in addition to a possible $2,098 to $470/year holding cost for the rest of the horse’s life if they are not adopted or sold. Why not apply the [these funds] to range improvements, livestock and fence removals, noxious weed treatment, water improvements, and any number of projects that would improve the condition of the [herd] area for wild horses and all the other wildlife species?”

These are not the only costs for taxpayers. The primary reason for removal of these animals has been to make way for cattle grazing. The cattle industry receives a substantial taxpayer subsidy from livestock grazing on public lands. The industry pays only $1.35 per animal under 18,000 grazing permits and leases on 258 million acres of public lands Grazing livestock on public lands is a “$132 million loss to the American taxpayer each year and independent economists have estimated the true cost at between $500 million and $1 billion dollars a year.” Despite this, only 2-4% of beef production is from grazing cattle on public lands.

BLM’s planning documents, the agency’s land use plans and environmental assessments almost always cite degradation of the range and lack of water as a reason to justify roundups and removals of wild horses and burros.  But BLM rarely mentions the thousands of cattle or sheep grazing on these lands, let alone as a substantial cause of any range degradation or use of water.

Yet, in 1990, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found the range was in the best condition it had been in during the past century. The GAO found any degradation was the result of livestock grazing and suggested removal of cattle.

To illustrate the absurdity of blaming wild horses and burros for range degradation or water loss, in zeroing out 12 herd management areas in Nye and Lincoln counties, Nevada in 2009, for example, the BLM estimated there were 1,357.43 acres per wild horse in one area, about 350 horses; and 3,377.38 acres per horse in another herd area, about 270 horses. The BLM would have us believe one wild horse per 3,377.38 acres caused substantial degradation of the range and water sources but that the thousands of cattle left there caused no harm at all.

A full year continuing appropriations bill for 2011, H.R. 1, that has been approved by the House of Representatives, would reduce the BLM’s total budget by $2 million but does not restrict the roundup, removal or holding wild horses and burros in facilities. The Obama administration has requested an additional $12 million over 2010 expenditures just for more roundups, removal and holding wild horses and burros. The Senate is considering a year long continuing appropriations resolution for 2011 that would authorize $75.7 million for the wild horses and burros program. It is expected the entire increase as was the case in 2010 would be spent on – you guessed it – roundups, removals and holding.

A vote will be held in Congress on the FY 2011 budget resolution on or before April 8.

In a recent Wild Horses and Burros Advisory Board meeting in Phoenix, Dean Bolstad, a BLM wild horses and burros specialist, announced there would be no more roundups in 2011 unless Congress agreed to the additional funding. A challenge to Congress.

And, another ploy. BLM issued this week for public comment Environmental Assessments (EAs) for roundups in the Three Fingers and Jackies Butte Herd Management Areas in southwestern Oregon. The plan is to roundup during the August heat 460 mustangs, 310 of which will be permanently removed from the range, leaving only 75 mustangs. BLM claims as always there is not enough forage or water for the horses, but that is probably because the agency allocates nearly three times more forage and water to cattle than to wild horses in this area.

Despite efforts to improve the image of its wild horses and burros program, BLM seems intent on continuing the roundup and remove wild horses from the range, using helicopters to run down the terrified animals, and then warehouse them in holding facilities. This despite no good information as to the census of wild horses and burros on the range. The Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act requires the BLM to maintain a “current inventory” of wild horses and burros” on the range. The BLM’s own Office of Inspector General found in a 2010 report that the agency’s number lack a scientific basis, oversight or checks and balances.

Also, BLM spends less than 3% of its program budget on monitoring horses on the range. It’s unclear how the agency could really know the number of wild horses and burros that are still free-roaming.

A report recently submitted to members of Congress,  Refuting Fy2011 Budget Justifications and Request to Defund Roundups and Removals, charges “estimates used by the BLM to support funding are not based on the best scientific, peer-reviewed data or state-of-the-art technology. The BLM’s data has proven to be continually inaccurate and unreliable … At this time, all outside authorities, including Congress, rely solely on the data the BLM provides, although its accuracy cannot be verified or substantiated.” For more on the numbers…

What we do know is that BLM has removed wild horses and burros permanently from nearly 21 million acres of lands that were originally herd areas.

The Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act, 16 U.S.C. Sections 1331 et seq., says that before removing wild horses and burros from the range, a determination must be made that they are “excess”, that there is an overpopulation, and removal is indicated “so as to restore a thriving natural ecological balance to the range, and protect the range from the deterioration associated with overpopulation“. 16 U.S.C. §1333(b)(2) BLM is also supposed to set appropriate management levels, the number of wild horses or burros that a herd area can support.

According to the report, Refuting Fy2011 Budget Justifications, despite “BLM’s stated goal for reducing national wild horse and burro populations to 26,600”, the agency is actually reducing “on-the range populations to the midpoint of Appropriate Management Level (AML) or lower…. without Congressional oversight or approval, without general public knowledge or input”.  In other words, BLM is removing wild horses and burros where they are not “excess”, in violation of WFRHBA. According to the report, more than 2/3 of wild horse herds do not have enough numbers to remain genetically viable.

Even if BLM’s estimate of a 20% annual reproduction rate is correct and if BLM receives funding for its 2011-2012 plans, using BLM’s own numbers, “remaining populations on the range will be less than 5,700 animals.”

And, of course, study after study has demonstrated “these rates [from BLM] are generally inconsistent with all research on reproductive rates”.  3.1%-13% seem to be more realistic annual reproduction rates depending on the area and the herd. Meaning there will likely be far fewer wild horses and burros left than the projection of 5,700 animals.

BLM has other ways of justifying removal of more and more wild horses and burros besides manipulating census or AML: The BLM has authorized itself to divide herd areas into “herd management areas“, something not authorized by WFRHBA. 43 CFR 4710.3-1. In this way, with no statutory authority at all, BLM has limited wild horses and burros’ access to thousands of acres that were historically their herd areas. This is done without thought about the horses’ seasonal migration patterns or available resources. The BLM then removes wild horses and burros from the artificially created “herd management areas” on the basis there is insufficient forage, water or habitat! BLM also targets them for removal if they cross the artificial boundaries into their original herd areas.

Taking this tactic even further, BLM and the U.S. Forest Service, for example, actually plan now to erect a fence to cut off wild horses and burros from traditional summer grazing lands in the Custer National Forest area. There is litigation pending to try to stop this.

More recently, BLM has claimed “emergency” conditions, drought and the like, as reasons for rounding up and removing horses. In the Tuscarora round up, for example, BLM did not mention “emergency” conditions as a reason for the round up in any of its planning documents. Then when horses began collapsing during the 2010 summer roundup from dehydration as they were forced by helicopters to run for miles in the searing heat, BLM claimed the round up was necessary because of drought conditions.

BLM has also labeled wild horses and burros as “feral” or “estray”, which are defined by state law and are generally domesticated horses that have been left to fend for themselves and become wild. It’s not easy to tell the difference between a feral, estray or wild horse. As feral or estray horses, BLM claims they belong to the state and can be rounded up and removed.  BLM ignores that the WFRHBA is supposed to protect “all unbranded and unclaimed horses and burros on public lands of the United States“. 16 U.S.C. Sec. 1332

BLM has opted for roundups and removal of wild horses and burros at great cost to the taxpayer and contrary to the requirements of the WFRHBA which mandates that these animals roam free of “capture” or “harassment” on public lands where there were found when the law was passed in 1971. 16 U.S.C. Sec. 1331 BLM is to manage the wild horses and burros on these lands at the “minimal feasible level” which should mean instead of roundups that BLM removes fences or other barriers to water and traditional migration routes, includes wild horses and burros in a fair allocation of forage, and takes steps to assure they remain self-sustaining and genetically viable.

As District Court Judge Rosemary Collyer ruled in the case, Colorado Wild Horse and Burro Coalition, Inc. v. Salazar, No. 06-1609 (D.D.C 2009):

“It would be anomalous to infer that by authorizing the custodian of the wild free roaming horses and burros to ‘manage’ them, Congress intended to permit the animals’ custodian to subvert the primary policy of the statute by capturing and removing from the wild the very animals that Congress sought to protect from being captured and removed from the wild. …[T]he statute expressly provides that BLM’s ‘management activities shall be at the minimal feasible level . . . .’

It is difficult to think of a ‘management activity’ that is farther from a ‘minimal feasible level’ than removal.”

WHAT YOU CAN DO

Right now before Congress votes on another continuing budget resolution on or before April 8, write (faxes are best) or call your U.S. representative and senators and urge them not to increase the BLM’s budget this year or de-fund the roundups except in the cases of true, verifiable emergencies, at least until the National Academy of Sciences has completed its study of the wild horses and burros program, and we can determine appropriate management for these animals, identify public lands where wild horses and burros could be returned to roam free, obtain an accurate census and set appropriate AMLs to ensure the herds are self-sustaining and genetically viable, and managed at the minimal feasible level.