June 2016 Report by:
Jesica Johnston, Environmental Scientist and
Grandma Gregg, Environmental Researcher
Photographs by Jesica Johnston
Buckhorn Road – Wild Horse and Burro Herd Area
I wish I was in the high desert with our wild horses and burros this very minute … but, I am sitting here at the computer and trying to think how to explain to people what a magnificent world our public lands and wildlife are and how magical it is to actually be there soaking up the fresh air and sounds of the songbirds and screech of the hawks and smell of the sage and the beauty of the wildflowers and landscape and especially what a thrill it is to actually be in the presence of our native wild horses and burros. In the wild.
As two experienced wildlife observers, we searched for two days for wild horses and burros and other wildlife in Northern California-Nevada Twin Peaks and Buckhorn Wild Horse and Burro Herd Areas. These areas are specifically designated for the protection of our wild horses and burros and is subject to the management of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). We traveled approximately 155 miles over 2 days and spent over 17 hours in the two herd areas. We drove slowly with many stops; some off-road hiking and almost constant searching with binoculars for signs of wild horses and wild burros. After 2 days, a total of only 25 wild horses and 5 wild burros were observed in total in the two herd areas. Of those, we saw no burro foals, two wild horse foals and two yearlings. All observed horses and burros appeared to in excellent physical condition. What was most obvious in our journey was the notable absence of signs of wild horses and burros or even tracks and traces of them like trailing, or stud piles on their legally authorized acres of public land. There was a noticeable absence of our wild equines and those we saw were very few and far between.
During our survey there were times that only a short distance could be seen due to canyon walls, but for the majority of the time we could see for more than a mile in all directions and further with binoculars. This allows us to estimate that approximately 18% of the Twin Peaks HMA and 27% of the Buckhorn HMA were observed as a rough approximation plus additional areas observed twice. Even though time and mileage were documented and a map available, herd area boundaries are vaguely marked, so some mileage and hours in the herd areas are rounded or estimated
Twin Peaks Wild Horse and Burro Herd Area: 54 miles, 7 ½ hours – Rye Patch Road, Big Springs, Painter’s Flat and Horne Ranch Road Areas
On day one, our first sighting of a wild horse family was a band we have seen before on the herd area near highway 395. There are now two stallions and two mares, a yearling and new foal in this group. They have made this area their home range for at least a few years now. Although wild horses do often roam, they typically have home ranges where they feel safe and where they know where the water and forage resources are available to them. Other wildlife we saw on the herd areas were a golden eagle and its nest, ravens, vultures, hawks, jackrabbits and cotton tail rabbits, water birds and many song birds, ground squirrels and several small herds of pronghorn antelope, mule deer and sadly a dead adolescent mountain lion on the edge of the herd area. BLM continually states that there are no predators in the Twin Peaks herd area but years of observation by many people have proven that to be inaccurate. Both live and dead mountain lions have been seen on the herd area. Two years ago a big healthy stallion was photographed with a massive open-wound neck injury believed to have been caused by a mountain lion as the stallion was protecting its family. In recent years, a full grown mare was found half-eaten and foals have been observed and then disappeared within a few weeks. In this herd area, mountain lions are a contributing factor in self-regulating and stabilizing the population for wild horses and burros. It is nature’s way.
The Twin Peaks Herd Area contains diverse ecosystems with both year-round streams and forage and juniper trees as well as dry high-desert regions. Most of the forage is recovering since the massive 2012 Rush wildfire although miles of dead Juniper trees and the post-fire highly invasive and non-native cheat grass can be seen everywhere. The few places of BLM’s post-fire plantings of native shrubs show no sign of life and only the plastic wrappers are left to show the shrubs were even planted. This worthless and costly planting was at our tax money expense and more importantly demonstrates mismanagement of our public lands by BLM.
Except for the fact that most native juniper trees had been burned past the point of recovery and the fact that the highly invasive cheat grass was seen covering many acres of what once was good native grasses, the forage in this area was lush and showed almost no sign of grazing. There are only a few small bands of wild horses and burros in this area that have been documented and it appeared that private/corporate domestic cattle had not yet been turned out in this Spanish Springs area. The grasses were at least knee high and the variety of many colored wild flowers flourished.
Spanish Springs Wild Horse Family
After many miles without seeing any wild horses or burros we spotted a massive bay stallion grazing in the distance. He was stunning and in the prime of his life but he was all alone. We were almost at Big Spring and decided to have lunch in this incredibly beautiful spot with a flowing stream and where we could see the big bay stallion and he could see us too. Although he watched us with curiosity and kept a big distance between us, he didn’t move away. He peacefully grazed and we peacefully snacked on our lunch and listened to the multitude of meadow larks sing.
Something amusing happened as we headed out near Painter’s Flat. Just as we both started to simultaneously remark about the five burros we had seen near some junipers about three years ago, suddenly we spotted the same five burros in the same exact spot. The burros were easily identifiable because one was noticeably very light colored. These burros had obviously found their niche in nature. As they stood motionless and facing us, they almost appeared to be statues. Although seeing the same burros in the same exact spot three years later might have been a coincidence, it certainly gave us insight to burro behavior and family units and reminded us that in the “big picture” of the world, nature judges time almost in another dimension.
We had a goal to try to get to a particular place near Accommodation Springs which is further into the back-country of the Twin Peaks Herd Area. This was a place where many wild horses had recently been photographed from the air during an independent wild horses and burro survey. When we finally arrived it was obvious that the large group had long-since dispersed and the only signs of them now were some old tracks in the dry mud and some old weather beaten manure. It was many miles of very slow and very bumpy “roads” to get to this spot. We observed an abundance of forage and plenty of water in this part of Twin Peaks but no wild horses or burros were to be found and no fresh manure or stud piles, but it was definitely a challenging and remote area of the Twin Peaks area to visit. The road as seen below is definitely one that has not been traveled frequently or recently.
The final leg of our first day’s journey gave us a chance to see the often photographed pair of wild horses known as “Sox” and his very pregnant mare “Sage”. This pair of wild horses has been documented as having survived the massive Rush wildfire in 2012 and as having foals in the recent years but not a single foal survived to the age of yearling. Because this part of the Herd Area has rich vegetation and easily available water and because both the mare and the stallion are in prime condition it is a representation of low foal survival even in a prime location within the herd area.
Twin Peaks and Buckhorn Wild Horse and Burro Herd Areas: 101 miles, 9 ½ hours – Buckhorn Reservoir, Buckhorn Byway, Round Coral, Pilgrim Lake, Burnt Lake, Dodge Reservoir and Rye Patch Road Areas.
We know that nature operates in cycles and it was great to see that Round Corral, Dodge, Buckhorn and Pilgrim Reservoirs/Lakes were once again brimming with water after the past few years of low precipitation; although we found no wild horses or burros near any of those water sources.
What we did find here were 500+ domestic sheep grazing in the middle of Burnt Lake. This is an example of BLM’s setting up wild horses and burros for failure by allowing livestock to strip the nutritious forage earlier in the year leaving the wild horses and burros very little to survive on during the winter months. This is also an example of BLM’s mismanagement of our riparian areas on our public lands and an example of favoritism to the domestic livestock ranchers. As with some other parts of the west, in this Northeast part of California ranchers take precedence on the public lands. In addition, BLM generally attributes this kind of riparian damage and over-use to the wild equine.
Livestock grazing has damaged approximately 80% of stream and riparian ecosystems in the western United States. Although riparian areas compose only 0.5-1.0% of the overall landscape, a disproportionately large percentage of approximately 70-80% of all desert shrub, and grassland plants and animals depend on them. The introduction of livestock into these areas 100-200 years ago has caused significant ecological disturbances. Livestock seek out water, succulent forage, and shade in riparian areas, leading to trampling and overgrazing of stream banks, soil erosion, loss of stream bank stability, declining water quality, and drier, hotter conditions. These changes have reduced critical habitat for riparian plant species and wildlife, thereby causing many native species to decline in number or go locally extinct.
Anyone who has read the BLM assessments regarding wild horses and burros doing damage to riparian areas should be aware that we do not find any wild horses or burros in large numbers in water ways or riparian areas. In contrast, we have observed and documented mass amounts of privately owned livestock being grazed in riparian areas. See below past year photos of livestock damage on the Twin Peaks herd area – cattle inside water trough and sheep in the Pilgrim lake bed.
Grazing livestock on public lands disturbs natural ecosystems and throws off the thriving natural ecological balance that the BLM is responsible to obtain on behalf of the public. See excerpt below from a very informative book that is a must read for those that care about protecting the future of our public lands.
The majority of the American public does not know that livestock grazing in the arid West has caused more damage than the chainsaw and bulldozer combined. Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West is a book featuring articles and photographs by expert authors and photographers on the severe negative impacts of livestock grazing on western public lands. http://www.publiclandsranching.org/book.htm
Twice we visited the area of Rye Patch Road looking for the white stallion “Magic” and his family that we have been observing for a few years, but they were not to be found. We hope that Magic and his band are up in the surrounding hills enjoying the lush forage and bubbliing springs as he and all wild horses deserve and are legally entitled to under the Wild Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act.
Toward the end of our two long days of searching, we were thrilled to finally see one small wild horse band that we have been following for about four years. We call them the little Spanish family because they are usually found not far from the Spanish Springs area of Twin Peaks. This band has a bay stallion, charcoal grey mare and bay and black offspring and this year a new foal!
What was most obvious is the notable absence of wild horses and burros on these legally authorized herd areas. It may seem trivial to some people, but anyone who has ever looked for wild horses and burros knows that seeing tracks and manure piles is a very important clue to the whereabouts and number of wild equines in an area. Therefore, manure or stud piles are encouraging to see for wild horse and burro researchers, observers, and photographers. When searching for bands of wild horses a few stud piles is generally the first and most obvious sign of horse activity.
These large piles of manure are territorial markings left by
stallions. Recent horse activity is determined by the freshness of these piles. Repeated defecation in a particular area results in accumulation of fecal matter into large mounds, which are known as “stud piles”. These stud piles are particularly useful as a means of communication and declares to other horses not only who the horse is, but also how recently the horse had been there. For this reason, a stallion tends to defecate over his own feces as this notifies others of his continued presence and avoids unnecessary conflict. For persons looking for wild horses a stud pile is a clear sign of horses in the area and the lack of stud piles is an indication of the absence of wild horses and burros in that area.
The few wild horses and burros we observed in the Twin Peaks herd area are in great condition with shiny coats and healthy weight but unfortunately, we recognized that there are very few of them to be found on their congressionally designated land. These ground surveys are extremely important in order to document band locations, animal and resource conditions as well as impacts of livestock grazing, juniper removal and fire restoration.
BLM’s nearby Litchfield wild horse and burro holding facility near Susanville, California appeared to be about one-third full with approximately 300 wild horses and burros still standing in a “feedlot” situation, while literally just over the hill the legally designated wild horse and burro herd area is noticeably absent of wild horses and burros. These wild horse and burro captives have no shade from sun and no shelter from the winter winds and snow and have lost their families forever.
For the past 40 plus years the BLM management appears to be politically driven by financial stakeholders, i.e. livestock permittees, mining and energy corporations, large lobbying trophy hunting “clubs” and many more. But let’s face it … the only persons that have worked for 40 plus years for the extinction of wild horses and burros are those with a financial interest. This has been and continues to be unacceptable.
Mules Ears and Observation Peak
BLM’s latest wild horse and burro population estimate for this Twin Peaks area is approximately 1935 wild horses and 518 wild burros but independent aerial and field surveys indicate there are far fewer remaining out there on their Congressionally designated lands. Of course, regardless of the mode of transport when independently surveying this Herd Area, we do not expect to see all of the wild ones but after numerous independent observations over many years, it is more than obvious that BLM’s population estimates are exaggerated. And now they are proposing to capture and remove wild horses and burros from the Twin Peaks Herd Area continually for the next ten years.
The BLM says our wild horses and burros on this Twin Peaks herd area are over their ill-conceived appropriate management level (AML). Thus far, no objective, scientifically supportable and credible surveys of wild horse and burro populations have been done by any government agency. The total Twin Peaks Herd Area land could support more than 4,618 wild horses per BLM’s “240 acres per wild horse” statement. Under the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act, Wild Horse and Burro Herd Areas are to be managed “principally, but not necessarily exclusively to their welfare” (WFRHBA, 1971). In the Twin Peaks Herd Area, livestock are permitted to use 82% of the forage allocations; where wild horses and burros are provided less than 18% of the available forage allocations.
As the district court explained in Dahl v. Clark, the test as to appropriate wild horse population levels is whether such levels will achieve and maintain a thriving, ecological balance on the public lands. Nowhere in the law or regulations is the BLM required to maintain any specific numbers of animals or to maintain populations in the numbers of animals existing at any particular time. The only law that requires the BLM to maintain populations is the 1971 Congressional law. The law must be followed and the law states, “that wild free-roaming wild horses and burros are to be considered in the area where presently found . As an integral part of the natural ecosystem of the public lands”. Thus, an AML established purely for BLM administrative reasons because it was the level of the wild horse and/or burro use at a particular point in time or imagined to be an advantageous population for BLM cannot be justified under statute.
“We do not agree with the BLM’s position that our statement reveals a misunderstanding about how BLM develops its appropriate management levels. We understand that wild horse levels are prepared as part of the land use planning process mandate by FLFNA. However, we do not believe that a level can be justified as representing a sound management decision merely because it is recorded in a land use plan. If a level is developed without regard to land conditions or wild horse range impact, its inclusion in the land use plan does not make it more useful or appropriate. In this connection, BLM provides no evidence to refute our finding (along with the finding of Interior’s Board of Land Appeals) that wild horse levels are being established arbitrarily without a sound factual basis.” The Report 1990 the Government Accountability Office (GAO)http://www.gao.gov/assets/150/149472.pdf
Per the 1971 Congressional Act, the land is to be devoted “principally”, but not exclusively, to the wild horses’ and wild burros’ welfare in keeping with the multiple-use management concept of public lands. Definition of “principally” is first, highest, foremost in importance, rank, worth or degree, chief, mainly, largely, chiefly, especially, particularly, mostly, primarily, above all, predominantly, in the main, for the most part, first and foremost.
There are no “excess” wild horses and burros on their legally designated lands and certainly not on the Twin Peaks and Buckhorn Herd Areas. In 1971 when the wild horse and burro protection law was unanimously signed by the Congress of the United States, wild horses and burros were found roaming across 53.8 million acres; known as Herd Areas. The American people are being misled by our government agencies that are mandated by Congressional Law to protect these animals. The wild horses and burros already have a place to live; and it is not in government corrals. These animals and this land do not belong to the government or the Bureau of Land Management; the wild horses and burros and the land belong to you and me.
Modern equids are survivors. Equids evolved to be resilient herd animals, migrating between resources with the seasons. They are long-lived, and populations are able to persist through droughts and harsh winters if their numbers are sufficiently large and interconnected. This resiliency allows them to thrive on some of the most marginal grazing habitat so long as they have regular access to water and room to roam. Modern equids are limited, however, in their ability to thrive in a world increasingly dominated by humans.
Although hopeful, our many trips to Twin Peaks always start with the optimism that we will see many of the wild horses and burros that BLM states are currently living on the Twin Peaks Herd Area. Regardless of the number or background or age or experience of observers or the time of year or the many miles and many hours and many days that have been spent over the many years by many independent observers searching and regardless of the mode of transport – be it hiking or driving or flying over the herd areas only a very small population of wild equines can be found. Instead, we find… miles and miles of beautiful open public land with very few wild horses and burros.
References and More Information and Videos
Twin Peaks 2011 Master’s Thesis by Jesica Johnston: http://csus-dspace.calstate.edu/handle/10211.9/1492
Twin Peaks Independent Aerial Survey Video: Counting Wild Horses: An Aerial Tour of Twin Peaks Wild Horse and Burro Habitat
Twin Peaks Independent Aerial Survey Report: https://rtfitchauthor.com/2014/02/15/twin-peaks-wild-horse-and-burro-aerial-population-survey/
2012 Rush Fire Report: https://rtfitchauthor.com/2012/10/08/twin-peaks-rush-creek-wild-fire-report-where-are-all-the-wild-horses-and-burros/
Twin Peaks May 2013 Report: https://rtfitchauthor.com/2013/05/31/citizen-report-wild-horses-notably-absent-from-california-herd-area-after-blm-roundup-and-fire/
Twin Peaks August 2013 Report: https://rtfitchauthor.com/2013/08/28/exclusive-wild-horse-and-wild-burro-good-news-and-bad-news-from-twin-peaks-hma/
Wild Horse Population Growth Research Report: https://rtfitchauthor.com/2014/04/28/report-wild-horse-population-growth/
Twin Peaks October 2013 Report: https://rtfitchauthor.com/2013/11/02/exclusive-report-where-have-all-the-wild-horses-and-burros-gone/
Twin Peaks June 2014 Report: https://rtfitchauthor.com/2014/06/23/field-report-life-and-death-wild-horses-and-burros-of-twin-peaks/
Twin Peaks October 2014 Report: https://rtfitchauthor.com/2014/10/30/wild-horses-and-burros-twin-peaks-coppersmith-and-buckhorn-herd-management-areas-october-2014/
Twin Peaks video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=llb8jejdBt0&feature=youtu.be
Twin Peaks video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lDxWwfsclIQ
Twin Peaks video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n0nKi7Ai7pM
Survey of Livestock Influences on Stream and Riparian Ecosystems in the Western United States http://lshs.tamu.edu/docs/lshs/end-notes/survey%20of%20livestock%20influences%20on%20stream%20and%20ri-1577607170/survey%20of%20livestock%20influences%20on%20stream%20and%20riparian%20ecosystems%20in%20the%20western%20united%20states.pdf
To download report complete with photos click (HERE)
To download BLM Twin Peaks Letter to Interested Parties click (HERE)