Myths and Misses All Around the Wild Horse and Burro Arena

Published July 30, 2010

LARKSPUR, Ca. – The public relations machine at the Bureau of Land Management  (“BLM”) of the United States Department of Interior (“DOI”) favors certain words, including “myth”, “activists,” “management,” “appropriate,” “reality” and “multiple use.”  They pop up over and over again in the BLM’s public statements about the Wild Horse and Burro Program and the program’s critics.  A recent example is a July 21, 2010, press release entitled “The Ruby Pipeline-Wild Horse Myth” from Tom Gorey, BLM “national spokesman” (public affairs):

It has recently been falsely alleged by some wild horse activists and by Las Vegas television reporter George Knapp that there is, or appears to be, a connection between wild horse gathers in northern Nevada and the construction of the Ruby Pipeline Project, a proposed 678-mile, 42-inch diameter interstate natural gas pipeline that would cross 368 miles of Federal land beginning near Opal, Wyoming, passing through northern Utah and northern Nevada, and terminating near Malin, Oregon.  Supposedly, according to this allegation, the BLM — which manages public lands for multiple uses — is moving horses out the way of the pipeline as a favor to the oil and gas industry.  The parent company of the pipeline project is El Paso Corporation.

This alleged horse removal-pipeline connection is false.  The BLM’s removal of wild horses from herds in Nevada, or any other Western state with wild horses, is necessitated by herd overpopulation, a management issue that the Bureau must deal with regardless of the existence or non-existence of the Ruby pipeline.  As it is, wild horse and burro herds, which have virtually no natural predators, grow at a rate of about 20 percent a year, which means herds can double in size every four years.

The BLM’s gathering and removal of horses is determined by site-specific rangeland conditions in the 179 Herd Management Areas under BLM management in 10 Western states.  After monitoring these conditions, the Bureau makes on-the-ground assessments of how many horses and burros the public rangelands can support in balance with other rangeland resources and uses.  Currently, the West-wide population of 38,400 wild horses and burros on BLM-managed rangelands exceeds by nearly 12,000 the number that the land can support.

The hard reality is that the ecosystems of public rangelands are not able to withstand the impacts from overpopulated herds, which include soil erosion, sedimentation of streams, and damage to wildlife habitat.  As for the landmark 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, Section 1333 of that law mandates that the BLM, after determining that an overpopulation exists, “shall immediately remove excess animals from the range so as to achieve appropriate management levels.”

The areas affected by construction of the Ruby pipeline will be re-vegetated with a mix of grasses and shrubs for the benefit of wildlife and wild horses and burros.

The BLM will continue to work to achieve the appropriate management level of wild horses and burros on Western public lands.  By doing so, healthy herds will be able to thrive on healthy public rangelands, both now and in the generations to come.

I congratulate the BLM for moving beyond making murky complaints about “allegations and accusations” by “some advocate groups” or “some people.”  Gorey at least attempts to get specific, and that should be acknowledged and applauded.  That is unfortunately the last good thing that can be said.  Gorey’s release misses another opportunity for the BLM to clear the record and start down a new path.

The BLM’s claimed figures of a “20 percent a year” reproduction rate, of “38,400 wild horses and burros on BLM-managed rangelands” and of “nearly 12,000” horses and burros that exceed “the number that the land can support” are not only unsubstantiated.  They are not even consistent with the BLM’s own previous numbers.  The BLM’s numbers are constantly changing (I counted five different range populations stated at one meeting alone) and that makes it very difficult (if not impossible, and if not deliberately misleading) to follow the BLM’s own reasoning, even if you believe the agency’s employees are sincere.  But leave the numbers aside for the moment.

Who exactly are “some wild horse activists” and what has been “alleged” by these unnamed “activists” against the BLM’s employees or contractors?  An “allegation” is a legal term defined as “a claim of a fact by a party in a legal pleading.”  I am not aware of any legal pleadings by wild horses advocates that make allegations about the BLM removing wild horses to make way for the Ruby Pipeline (Gorey’s press release makes no reference to a legal proceeding).  I think what Gorey may have meant to say is that representatives of the Cloud Foundation and Western Watershed Project (the WWP is not a wild horse advocacy group, by the way), in a Cloud Foundation press release issued on January 7, 2010, claimed that accelerated round-ups of wild horses in the area of wilderness affected by the Ruby Pipeline may have been related to the Ruby Pipeline development.  Gorey could have said that his own agency, on January 22, 2010, posted a responsel to the Cloud Foundation’s claim (BLM response linked here).  Gorey might then have said that reporter George Knapp, in an article published July 7, 2010, reported a claim of a possible link between removals of wild horses and the Ruby Pipeline project, but that these claims were previously addressed and rejected by the BLM in its January 22, 2010 post.

The BLM may be the most frequently sued agency in the federal government.  Tom Gorey certainly knows the difference between a pleading, a press release and a news report, and he should also know how to provide a useful chronology of facts.  Here is how it might have looked:

On January 7, 2010, the Cloud Foundation, a “a Colorado 501(c)3 non-profit corporation” according to its website, issued a press release entitled “Ruby Pipeline:  The Real Reason Behind BLM’s Push to Remove Wild Horses?”  The release made certain claims about the Ruby Pipeline and wild horse removal and included a quote from Katie Fite of the Western Watershed Project (not a wild horse advocacy group) that “The roundups in the Ruby Pipeline zone are questionable.”  The Cloud Foundation press release asked the BLM to “reveal the truth” about any link between the pipeline project and wild horse removals, and included a paragraph containing a partial quote from a consultant to the Ruby Pipeline project:

In a written response to questions posed by the Office of Energy Projects (an agency within the Department of Energy), a Ruby natural gas pipeline project consultant, Dan Gredvig, stated that “Ruby will work with BLM to minimize wild horse and burro grazing along the restored ROW (right-of-way) for three years. Possible management actions would be to . . . reduce wild horse populations following BLM policy in appropriate management areas. BLM wild horse and burro specialists were consulted in developing this management approach.”The document is dated February 23, 2009.

On January 22, 2010, the BLM posted a response on its own website to the Cloud Foundation January 7, 2010, press release.  The BLM’s response, entitled “The Calico Complex Wild Horse Gather and the Proposed Ruby Pipeline Project” stated “the Cloud Foundation put out a news release recently claiming that the Proposed Ruby Pipeline Project is the reason the BLM is gathering and removing excess wild horses from the Calico Mountain Complex.”  (I don’t think the Cloud Foundation makes that claim, but clearly a link is suggested.)  The BLM’s response provides the full quote from the Ruby consultant (emphasis in the original):

POD Appendix K, Draft Restoration and Reclamation Plans for Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and Oregon filed with FERC in July 2009, specifies actions to minimize wild horse and burro grazing “within the reclaimed ROW”: Ruby will work with the BLM to minimize wild horse and burro grazing along the “restored” ROW for three years. “Possible management actions would be to provide water sources away from the ROW, include low palatable plant species in the seed mix such as sagebrush, temporary fencing with gaps, and/or reduce wild horse populations following BLM policy in appropriate management areas.”BLM wild horse and burro resource specialists were consulted in developing this management approach.

Unfortunately, the BLM’s attempt to clarify and correct only creates more confusion and suspicion.  The BLM seems to be trying to say “See, we do care about the horses and burros because everything here indicates we are trying to find ways to minimize the impact that the Ruby Pipeline will have on the horses in the three years after the pipeline is completed.”  The BLM also claims the Cloud Foundation release deliberately removed language from the consultant’s original quote  (“two lines of critical information was [sic] purposely left out of the Cloud Foundation’s news release”).  I have no idea what the Cloud Foundation intended by providing an ellipsis in the quote (and neither does the BLM), but in my view the “restored lines” do not contain “critical information,” and their addition or deletion changes nothing.

If the BLM’s setting of “wild horse population” numbers in “appropriate management areas” were based on science; unrelated to planning for energy projects; a straightforward “on-the-ground” determination as Gorey claims, then no “consultation” between the BLM’s “wild horse and burro specialists” and El Paso Corporation or its consultants on the subject of reducing wild horse populations would ever have occurred.  If  “removal of wild horses/burros is not addressed in the Ruby Pipeline Final EIS, because [the Final EIS] has nothing to do with the removal of wild horses or burros,” as Gorey claims, a discussion about wild horse “reduction” would have had no place in a conversation about the pipeline and right-of-way considerations.  If wild horse presence is truly irrelevant to the pipeline–as Gorey claims–whether the presence “pre-construction” and “post-construction” is a distinction without a difference.

BLM decisions to reduce or expand (has this ever occurred?) wild horse and burro populations, in any case and every case, are clearly an intrinsic part of multiple use considerations in BLM practice (including, but not limited to, energy projects and food animal production).  BLM decisions about wild horse and burro populations and “management areas” are not made “on the ground” but are the result of discussions that took place decades ago.  Why the BLM attempts to make this claim simply adds to the confusion.

Multiple use management is in the BLM’s regulations, it is in the minutes of the BLM meetings with stakeholders and “the public” and it is in the BLM press releases (including Gorey’s above) and published conversations.  It is no secret that the BLM believes it is required by law to “manage” wild horses and burros as a component of the multiple use “mandate” set by  Congress.  That this requirement and mandate was engineered by the BLM and its friends may be something most BLM employees do not acknowledge and most members of the public do not understand, but it is no secret.

The “last piece” of the puzzle that underlies the July 21, 2010 “Myth” press release by Tom Gorey–the July 7, 2010, news report by George Knapp of “Las Vegas News Now” entitled “BP Connected to Wild Horse Roundups?”–again asked “Is there a link?” between the wild horse roundups and the Ruby Pipeline project, but does not provide an answer.  I think a better question is “Are So-Called “Clean Energy” Projects Fast-Tracked by the Obama Administration Accelerating Wild Horse and Burro Round-ups?”  Or how about “What Does Bob Abbey Mean by ‘All the Available Tools?'” Maybe when we begin to get answers to these questions, we can begin to have a productive conversation about “hard realities” and motivations.

In her curiously titled book Honest Horses (published by the University of Nevada Press, Reno, in 2006, author Paula Morin, published “narrative conversations” with several BLM and former BLM employees that are long on myths about wild horse and burro advocates, the public and the equids themselves and short on specifics.

Tom Pogacnik, former head of the BLM’s National Wild Horse and Burro Program, at page 13 of Honest Horses, offers this insight about what he calls “some advocate groups:”

Wild horses are a cultural symbol of our pioneering past, but too often the public becomes so enamored by their mystique that they lose all perspective.  This is especially true with some advocate groups, who fail to recognize there are certain things we can and can’t do with these animals.  We can’t protect every individual horse, for one thing.  It’s not feasible, and it’s not appropriate either.

Bob Abbey, former Director of the BLM until earlier this year (2010) when he moved over to the disgraced Minerals Management Service, is quoted at page 28 of Honest Horses offers this on the subject of public trust, hidden agendas and what “people” allege or accuse the BLM of doing in the management of wild  horses and burros:

Anytime I talk with people about the wild horse [and burro] program, the response is either that we’re sacrificing the livestock industry for the sake of the wild horses or that we’re sacrificing wild horses to support the livestock industry.  There are a lot of allegations and accusations made about our incompetence and our inability to manage the program, and I think some of the criticisms are right on the mark.

Abbey goes on to say, at page 31 of Honest Horses, “In my view, we must focus energy on the sustainability of the resource itself instead of talking only about the horses . . . I’m not sure that many advocacy groups look at the long-term effects of the actions they propose.”  Abbey also says, “We need to agree that management must happen, determine the appropriate numbers, and then manage accordingly by using all the available tools to do that.”

The “available tools” that Abbey refers to are those added to the BLM’s tool kit by the “Burns Amendment” of 2005 (attached to an appropriations bill) that amended the “landmark 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, Section 1333,” adding the language about “excess horses.”  This language was not part of the original 1971 Act and was not part of the original intent of the legislators who enacted it.  In this context, Gorey’s reference to the “landmark 1971” Act as containing this language is not technically inaccurate, but it is misleading (he could have said “as amended”).

And that is the rub.  The BLM’s management of wild horses and burros has never embraced the spirit and intent of the 1971 law, even as the agency passionately defends its technical compliance with the letter of the law (as amended).  The constant mantra about “all the available tools,” “hard realities” and “exploding populations” reveals an agency that is seriously out of touch with reality, obsessive about controlling the message and paranoid about advocates and environmentalists (AKA “activists”).

Kudos to the BLM for getting more specific, but what about a little “spirit of the law” along with “the letter?”  Wild horse and burro advocates and the public remain suspicious of the BLM’s stated motives because the agency does not speak and act in a way that inspires confidence.  Their words betray them, time and time again.

One Response to “Myths and Misses All Around the Wild Horse and Burro Arena”
  1. Lisa LeBlanc says:

    An absolutely & stunningly executed article.

    There are no worthy words or phrases. This is a keeper.

    Thank You.

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