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Misrepresenting Wild Horses At The New York Times

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Thanks to Vickery and James for taking the time to dig for facts to give much needed accuracy.  Below is a recent article by Vickery. SOURCE:  The Daily Pitchfork

Misrepresenting Wild Horses At The New York Times

Photo by Jennifer MaHarry

Rated: F

Article Review:

As Wild Horses Overrun the West, Ranchers Fear Land Will Be Gobbled Up

New York Times  –  Sep 30, 2014

How much disclosure does the media owe its readers?  Two New York Times articles illuminate the complexity of this timely question: “Hidden Interests, Closer to Home,” by Public Editor Margaret Sullivan (Sept. 20, 2014), and “As Wild Horses Overrun the West, Ranchers Fear Land Will Be Gobbled Up,”by Times staff writer, Dave Philipps (Sept. 30, 2014).

Sullivan’s and Philipps’ articles bookend a discussion about think tanks exploiting op-ed pieces (or other articles) to advance policies in a way that obscures conflicts of interest.  Sullivan’s article clarifies the Times’ position on this issue.  She writes, “For [Times’] readers to evaluate ideas, they need to know where they’re coming from — and who might be paying for them.”  A related corollary is that to evaluate ideas, readers also need access to accurate data and context.

But Philipps’ story, which appeared ten days after Sullivan’s essay, accomplishes neither of these objectives.  In fact, it repeatedly violates them, despite Sullivan’s presentation of them as essential to the Times’ editorial mission.

The relevant policy under examination is the federal government’s Wild Horses and Burros program.  Philipps suggests that reducing costly roundups and slaughtering horses held in captivity would fix the problem by lowering the expense of long-term holding facilities, where close to 50,000 horses now languish.

There’s just one problem: both Congress and the U.S. public oppose that “solution.”

Rather than address the concerns of Congress, Philipps quotes a couple of self-interested Utah ranchers who predictably claim that an over-abundance of wild horses are eating their cattle out of house and home, threatening the horses’ and ranchers’ existence, and costing taxpayers a bundle.  He adds the perspective of a sympathetic wildlife biologist and a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manager for support.

An overpopulation story—especially one exposing federal spending that goes against the public’s interest as expressed through their elected officials—is essentially a numbers story.  Philipps’ story, however, doesn’t provide a proper accounting.

The population numbers he uses—48,000 wild horses roaming free compared to a maximum sustainable herd size (called Appropriate Management Level) of just 26,000—aren’t reliable.  These figures are BLM estimates.  They are estimates, moreover, that the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) sharply criticized as inaccurate in a 398-page, 2013 report (“Using Science to Improve the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program: A Way Forward”).

The BLM itself commissioned the NAS report, but Philipps, in failing to mention the study, neglects the NAS finding that BLM roundups increase horse populations (p. 5-6)that the BLM underutilizes fertility control (p. 303); and that conducting “business as usual” is unproductive (p. 14).

These omissions are only the tip of an iceberg of confusion.  Philipps did not provide Times readers with the relevant context. For example, readers should have known that of the 155 million acres of western rangeland that the BLM oversees for public grazing, 83 percent has no wild horses on it at all—just privately owned cattle and sheep.  The remaining 17 percent is designated as wild horse habitat, but horses share it, yet again, with privately owned livestock, which are allocated 77 percent of the forage there, according to Zachary Reichold, BLM senior wild horse and burro specialist.

The BLM doesn’t explicitly provide the number of privately owned livestock on public lands, but those numbers can be gleaned by visiting its Rangeland Administration System (RAS) database, where public grazing allotments are tracked.  There you can learn that, in Utah’s Beaver and Iron Counties—where the ranchers Phillips interviews blame the horses for compromising the rangeland’s health—it would be a physical impossibility for horses to overrun the landscape.  Notably, the RAS shows cattle and sheep there outnumbering wild horses by almost 11:1.

Nationally, cattle outnumber wild horses 50:1 on BLM-managed lands, contradicting the Times claims of wild horses “overrunning the West,” “gobbling up land,” “causing long-term damage,” and fleecing taxpayers.  It’s true that public rangelands have deteriorated from overgrazing.  But there’s no evidence that wild horses are to blame.

But there is evidence that livestock are.  Damage caused by private livestock grazing is confirmed by watchdog groups such as Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility(PEER) and Western Watersheds—and that’s without even analyzing the immense cost to taxpayers of the federal grazing program. The issue is analyzed here.

Philipps also neglects to mention the massive gas development deal announced back in 2012 on 1.1 million acres of mixed federal, state and private land in Carbon and Sweetwater counties.  This land is the Wyoming “checkerboard” from which the BLM has just finished removing 1,263 horses—a roundup that Philipps attended as a reporter.

The BLM states that the Wyoming roundup was carried out at the request of private land owners and had nothing to do with horses eating too much or being in danger of starvation.  Who made that request has not been made clear.  A FOIA request sent to the BLM back in April seeking that information has still not received a response (as of today).

In her September 20 article, Ms. Sullivan, The New York Times Public Editor, notes disclosure lapses in several recent Times op-ed pieces and articles, quoting a reader who complains: “the NYT may be unwittingly aiding and abetting the very manipulations of public opinion and government policies that it publicly deplores.”  This claim could easily be made about Dave Philipps’ fact-challenged, selectively reported, and lopsided article.

Editor’s note: Both Ms. Sullivan and Mr. Philipps were asked, via e-mail, to comment on the claims in this article.  They never responded.  The New York Times corrections desk did not respond to the editors’ request for corrections either. 


Vickery Eckhoff – Co-founder and Executive Editor

VICKERY headshotVickery is a New York City-based writer whose investigation of wild horse politics and the underground horsemeat trade has produced a book proposal and more than two dozen articles on, the Huffington Post, Newsweek/The Daily Beast and Alternet.  As part of her research, Vickery has interviewed Dr. Temple Grandin, local and state legislators, horsemeat-loving chefs, slaughter plant owners, kill buyers, ranchers and officials at the USDA, Bureau of Land Management and other government agencies.  She has been a guest speaker at four equine conferences on the topic of correcting disinformation about animals in the media.  Contact:

James McWilliams – Co-founder and Senior Editor

James iJAMES_headshots a writer based in Austin, Texas and a professor at Texas State University.  His books include Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly (Little, Brown) and A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America (Columbia University Press).  His writing on food, agriculture, and animals has appeared in The Paris Review (online), The New Yorker, The New York Times, Harper’s, The Washington Post, Slate, The American Scholar, Texas Monthly, and The Atlantic.  He’s a columnist at Pacific Standard and his literary non-fiction has appeared in The Millions, Quarterly Conversation, The Los Angeles Review of Books and The New York Times Book Review.  In 2009, he won the Hiett Prize, a national award given annually to a pioneer in the humanities by The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture.

10 replies »

  1. I’ve enjoyed both Vickery and James in the past. I think it was James who described horse meat as an industrial wasteland. Should be interesting reading.

    As for Dave Phillips, I went back to the tape of his conversation with Salazar a few times. It’s clear that the Secretary was under the impression that they were playing on the same team. Right before the threat of the punch was made, the Secretary started to confide in him–Dave probably made a face or tipped him off, because he suddenly changed his tone and demeanor. At any rate, if they were not working for the same employer then, they certainly are now. The Gray Lady is on life support for the very reasons you’ve given above.


  2. Vickery, can you please take a look at this article? I have written the editor for a correction but (no surprise) no reply, and no comments are allowed where the article itself is published. It is a patent falsehood to declare there are 50,000 “free-roaming” BLM managed wild horses in the Great Basin!

    “Locating wild horses in the Great Basin has occupied me for years. For all the time and effort, success still relies more on luck and persistence than skill. …

    “With only two humans per square mile it is by far the least densely populated part of America, but it is currently home to some 50,000 free-roaming wild horses and burros under the care and protection of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a U.S. government agency.”


  3. Honest truth given to the American public would be (and very occasionally is) a breath of fresh air and is SO needed in our country. I know many/most people are “taken in” by the media lies and garbage but if you stop and think and don’t allow yourself to be pushed into the mindless sensationalism and if you follow the money and realize what big money and politicians are “in bed with” each other … you might get to the bottom of some of the truth and lies. Not a lot of people have the time or interest to sort it all out for themselves therefore, if Vickery and James are able to give us the REAL news, I applaud them loudly.


  4. In this article about kill buyers, it says “In my opinion, the horse is the most betrayed animal on Earth


  5. Here’s another “update” still officially stuck on August 15, 2014. Last I heard the numbers dead there were over 90, but nothing to that effect has been officially published, nor any necropsy results.

    Release Date: 08/15/14
    Contacts: WHB Information Line , 866-468-7826

    BLM Investigates Wild Horse Deaths at Kansas Corral

    Scott City, Kan.—The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has launched an investigation into the cause of death for 57 wild horses that were recently transferred to a corral in Scott City, Kan. The BLM, which manages 49,200 wild horses and burros on the range and 47,300 in open pastures and corrals, strives to ensure that herd sizes on the range remain in a healthy balance with other public rangeland resources and uses and places a priority on the well-being of the animals in its care.


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