Horse News

Wild Horses Are (Again) Losing Their Home On The Range

article by Andrew Cohen from the pages of the Atlantic

America’s wild horses are in trouble, and the federal government isn’t helping

An excellent must read for all!” ~ R.T.

Why did this animal that had prospered so in the Colorado desert leave his amiable homeland for Siberia? There is no answer. We know that when the horse negotiated the land bridge… he found on the other end an opportunity for varied development that is one of the bright aspects of animal history. He wandered into France and became the mighty Percheron, and into Arabia, where he developed into a lovely poem of a horse, and into Africa where he became the brilliant zebra, and into Scotland, where he bred selectively to form the massive Clydesdale. He would also journey into Spain, where his very name would become the designation for gentleman, a caballero, a man of the horse. There he would flourish mightily and serve the armies that would conquer much of the known world.

— James Michener


Photo by Terry Fitch

It’s been a hot, stormy summer on the Red Desert range in southern Wyoming, around Rock Springs and the state’s southern boundary with Colorado, where Interstate 80 takes long-haul truckers and tourists through one of America’s least hospitable landscapes. The desolate land even includes Sweetwater County, one of those romantic cowboyesque names that mockingly crop up from place to place in the Rocky Mountain West, more an aspiration than a reality when you consider that there isn’t much water there and what there is isn’t so sweet.

In this forlorn place are two “herd management areas” called “White Mountain” and “Little Colorado,” places were some of America’s wild horses roam free pursuant to federal rule and regulation. According to Bureau of Land Management statistics, the federal government owns or controls 849,033 acres of land in the area, Wyoming owns another 15,877 acres, and private entities own 149,647 more. BLM officials estimate that, after the 2011 foaling season, there are approximately 970 wild horses on White Mountain and Little Colorado lands.

If you do the math, based only upon the federal land figure, it comes to 875.29 acres per horse. Do a little more math and you learn that 875 acres equals approximately 1.37 square miles. Ask any horse owner you know if she could get by on that horse-to-land ratio and the answer is an immediate and emphatic “Yes!” At first glance, it seems like a perfectly harmonic arrangement; our nation’s wild horses peaceably tending to our nation’s less desirable lands out of the way of most human traffic. The symbol of our nation’s history and growth simply left alone to graze land most of us would never see if we were to live a hundred lifetimes.

But alas it’s a lot more complicated than that. Intertwined private ownership of lands within the management areas, differing land-use priorities, a lack of bureaucratic courage and creativity, and a 30-year-old deal between ranchers and a long-gone horse group, all have eliminated the possibility of simply working the acreage numbers for the benefit of the horses. The herd areas themselves are part of a “checkerboard” pattern of public and private land (the ratio is close to 50-50, say ranchers) and the horses themselves haven’t helped their own cause. During the winter, they often migrate from public land onto private land, where they are considered a nuisance to some property owners.

This natural pattern has persisted for generations and it’s been closely monitored by the feds for at least the past 30 years. With this history, geography, and horse biology in mind, the BLM announced last month that there were, again, too many wild horses on the two Wyoming ranges. Wildlife officials now plan in mid-August to begin to cull roughly 70 percent of the herds out of Little Colorado and White Mountain in a particularly controversial way. And, in response, wild horse advocacy groups and others filed a federal lawsuit Monday in Washington, D.C. seeking a restraining order that would halt the roundup.

All the time and all over the West, horse advocacy groups battle the federal government over the fate of wild horses. The story is almost always the same. The “horse lobby” cannot compete politically (i.e. financially) with the cattle or ranching industries. Invariably, it’s the wild horses which lose out to the cattle or to the sheep or to other business interests. And invariably, its the federal government, acting through regulators who are captive to the industries they are supposed to regulate, which helps ensure that this occurs. In this case, for example, we see the federal agency responsible for protecting wild horses struggling to justify a decision that undoubtedly will harm a great many of those horses and, indeed, the future of those herds.

Sell the cow, buy the sheep, but never be without the horse. — Irish Proverb  

On June 14th, the BLM announced a plan to remove all of the wild horses on Little Colorado and White Mountain and to then return a small number of castrated or spayed horses to the range. Here is how the Bureau describes how the roundup occurs:

Multiple capture sites (traps) would be used to capture wild horses within the White Mountain and Little Colorado HMAs… Capture techniques would include the helicopter-drive trapping method and/or helicopter-roping from horseback. Bait trapping may also be utilized on a limited basis, as needed.

(These roundups can be so disturbing that they warrant their own treatment in a future article. I will try to get to it later this summer). Just one week later, however, under heavy fire from mortified advocacy groups, the Bureau partially changed its tune. It increased the number of horses that would be returned to the lands and decided not to spay the mares. Still, nearly 700 of 970 or so horses now on the Little Colorado and White Mountain range will soon be gone if the BLM gets its way. Here’s how Interior Department officials described their new plan:

This modified decision returns about 177 geldings to the two HMAs to reach appropriate management level (AML). AML is the point at which the herd’s population is consistent with the land’s capacity to support wild horses in balance with other public rangeland uses and resources. The projected wild horse population remaining on the range following the gather would be about 205 in the White Mountain HMA and about 69 in the Little Colorado HMA.

There is no evidence that the horses are harming each other. And no factual detail about how their population has created an “imbalance” upon the vast range lands. Instead, Lance Porter, Field Manager at the Rock Springs office of the BLM, justified the “modified” decision” by writing that he had “concluded that gathering the excess horses is necessary to preserve and maintain a thriving ecological balance and multiple-use relationship” on the land. By bringing back only castrated stallions to the two Wyoming herds, Porter’s plan was meant to “prevent the necessity to gather more frequently due to lower population increases over time.”

Going forward, the two herds will be genetically limited in ways the government has not yet fully evaluated. This is perhaps the most significant part of the new BLM plan. It doesn’t just purport to addres the current “overcrowding” it sees on these ranges. It seeks to impact the ability of these herds in the future to breed the way wild horses have bred for thousands of years. It’s a sort of genetic engineering which horse advocate groups say needs a lot more scientific review before it can be implemented in the wild.

Among the many options that were considered and rejected by the BLM was the concept of revising the existing “management level” so that more than 205-300 horses would be considered an “appropriate” number to graze on the hundreds of thousands of empty acres. Those figures (205-300) arose in 1981 as part of a settlement in a federal lawsuit over the fate of the horses. The party that sought (and obtained) the drastic limitation on the number of wild horses on the lands is an organization known as the Rock Springs Grazing Association. In 2007, according to the Wyoming Business Report, the Association celebrated “100 years of unity.”

Here’s what else the business paper had to say about the group:

Click (HERE) to read this article in it’s Entirety


26 replies »

    • Considering the credentials of this author, including being a former member of the CBS News Team, it appears that the dereliction of duty displayed by both the DoI and the BLM is beginning to make inroads into the mainstream media.


    Take Action TODAY: Protect Wild Horses in Oregon’s Murderers Creek
    Comments due by July 29, 2011
    Share this action alert on Facebook

    The wild horses of the Murderers Creek Herd Management Area (HMA) and Wild Horse Territory (WHT) are unique. Descendants of Native American
    horses, New World Iberian breeds and horses turned loose by settlers and ranchers, these mustangs are genetically distinct from other Oregon wild herds thanks to their geographic location.
    Known as “Timber Horses,” they live deep amongst the conifers and ponderosa pines in the Malheur National Forest, Read more about the wild horses of Murderers Creek here.


    • This brings up questions; was the date for the start of Murderer’s Creek on July 1st done without a comment period? Murderer’s Creek is Forest Service and these horses are to be bait trapped. The schedule read from 7/1 to 9/29. Did they begin already? The goal was trap and remove 50.


      • Big Summit, also in Oregon, Forest Service, has the same dates for Bait Trapping as Murderer’s Creek; 7/1 to 9/29 with 50 wild horses to be captured and removed. Did they have a comment period?

        “Outside Paisely HMA” and “Outside Warm Springs” are two more bait trapping operations dated &/1 to 9/29 with 10 horses from each location to be captured and removed.

        Have these operations all begun without comments?


  2. This is the kind of publicity our wild horses need. It’s one of the best exposes
    ever and indeed a must read all the way to the end. Read comments and click on like for the good ones too.


  3. I went to the entire story link.

    WOW! This dude is SMART! The legal aspect he interjects is simply superb.

    The DOI/BLM and “grazing” association sound like dodo birds.

    The comments by advocates are some of the best I have ever seen.

    Good stuff!

    I wonder how this issue became something of interest to Mr. Cohen.


  4. I must say that I am somewhat blown away to see such an article in the more mainstream media. Mr. Cohen researched the story and pulled no punches in the delivery. I can only hope that more media stop putting out the BLM generated stories we have put up with for far too long. Maybe when the media reads this they will see that they have been duped and are guilty of really lousy reporting for far too long. I hope Mr. Cohen goes on to do a story on the brutality of the roundups. I can’t wait to see his take on that. I will be sending a thank you to this man of integrity.


  5. Gross dereliction of duty alright. The BLM isn’t even bothering to validate if wild horses even need to be removed before picking an arbitrary number to remove. They aren’t even seeing if there are other options to pursue before implementing the most drastic of all—sterilization, which is completely, 100% unnecessary. Why do a handful of BLM staffers get to make these irreversible decisions based on “feelings” that there might be too many horses in the FUTURE? And they call us emotional. All their decisions are based on emotions and not fact or logic.


  6. R.T., thanks so much for posting this. Kudos to Mr. Cohen for such an informed, comprehensive, and well-written article!

    Some info about The Atlantic (formerly The Atlantic Monthly):
    1. 2010 Print Circulation – 450,000+ (subscriptions & single copy sales) and third fastest growth (behind Time & Newsweek). Readership multiplies as mags find their way to waiting rooms.
    2. 2011 Top-5 Nominee for the ASME Best National Magazine Award (National Geographic won). Top five in most recent years as well.
    3. Strong and growing presence online
    4. Demographics – Median age about 59. 60% men/40% women
    5. Primary readership on the East Coast (The majority of Annie’s supporters were Easterners.)

    I don’t know if Reader’s Digest (or other “biggies”) pick up from The Atlantic, but wouldn’t that be wonderful!


  7. I was specifically told by three cowboys staying in Rock Springs that BLM is overwhelmed and under budgeted. When I mentioned they could quit rounding up so many horses I was basically shouted down.

    Again I say I saw NO horses in the over 13 hours I spent on the loop this past weekend. I want to know where they were.


    • The horses are west of the loop, south of Pilot Butte. Some will be along the road in the early morning, right around dawn, but they mostly stick to the hills and canyons. I understand your concerns, but I saw around 50 on Sunday and Monday, and can assure you they have not been removed yet.


    • you might try the holding facilities if you want to see wild (formerly) horses. Just ask any BLM person where they stockpiled all of them.


  8. Margaret,
    I wonder how those people that shouted you down would react to finding out that the agency decided to eliminate their jobs in order to continue the round-ups. It happens all the time. The contractors seem to be the first ones to the trough and they siphon off a HUGE portion of those “underfunded budgets”.


  9. Sending this out to many – may even just sent the complete article! What a great kick this is in the ass of the BLM – and by a NON-horse advocate (?) in terms of a totally unique and NEW voice on this issue! Kudos to this man – hope he writes more…and will tell him that myself in writing.


  10. This is not the first time that Andrew Cohen has gone to bat for our Wild Horses and Burros:

    Horses, as No. 3 Most Under-Reported Legal Story of 2010

    CBS Legal Analyst Picks Interior Dept. Corruption, including BLM’s “Shoddy” Treatment of Wild Horses, as No. 3 Most Under-Reported Legal Story of 2010
    December 27, 2010 by admin • Leave a Comment

    CBS Radio legal editor and chief network legal analyst has pegged Interior Department corruption, including the treatment of wild horses, as the number 3 under-reported legal story of 2010.

    Andrew Cohen, a two-time Edward R. Murrow Award-winner whose commentaries for CBS News Radio are broadcast on hundreds of television and radio affiliates around the country, writes:
    No. 3: Lingering problems at the Interior Department.
    It wasn’t just the department’s slow response to the massive Gulf oil spill. It wasn’t just the way a federal trial judge used a written opinion to eviscerate Mineral Management Service’s staffers over their push for an undersea drilling moratorium. It wasn’t the shoddy way in which the Bureau of Land Management treated wild horses out West, to the benefit of corporate interests, which led to unnecessary deaths and a much-needed internal review. It was all of these things, and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s leadership, that reveal the lingering problems. Just two years after the agency’s sex and drugs scandal, you would have thought more folks would still be paying attention. It’s just our land, air, water and animals that are at stake, after all.


    • Good research Louie!

      Yep! It appears Mr. Cohen knows what is going on at DOI….love the specific dig at the head killers and thug…Salazar.


    Wyoming to intervene in horse roundup lawsuit
    Associated Press, July 28, 2011
    CHEYENNE, Wyo. – Gov. Matt Mead will oppose a lawsuit filed by environmental groups trying to block the U.S. Bureau of Land Management from proceeding with a plan to round up and castrate hundreds of wild stallions in the southwestern part of the state, his office said Thursday.


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