Understanding the wild horse and burro issue: Part 1
February 24, 2014
While the greater American west is enduring an extended drought, the land suffers, as do those that depend upon it for survival. The BLM's multiple-use management mandate encompasses all uses of and needs from the landscape, with much attention given to the renewable resource of vegetation and how it is utilized by both wild and domestic animals.
Native wildlife populations are managed and controlled primarily via hunting. The issuance of hunting tags by state wildlife agencies is partially according to what the land can sustain; in drought years, more tags might be issued, to not only avoid damage and deterioration to the rangeland resource, but also to prevent the unnecessary suffering of starvation and dehydration when resources are limited.
Widely misunderstood and frequently protested, domestic livestock's use of the land is carefully monitored and balanced with other uses. Grazing rights are attached to parcels of privately held land, and in some cases, water rights on public land are even privately held. The presence of cattle and sheep on the range is actually quite often a key element in the survival of wildlife. While public land ranchers are often vilified by certain special interest groups, it is actually most often the ranchers' own time, effort, and money invested into the development and maintenance of water resources-water resources that are of great benefit to wildlife species and wouldn't be there if not for the ranchers.
In the high desert country, streams that flow year-round are few and far between, and the majority of stock water comes from developed springs or is hauled by permit owners to troughs on the range. However, in drought years, the use of grazing permits is often the first thing reduced and sometimes even eliminated due to lack of forage. Even with their personal stock removed from the range, in some cases, ranchers continue to haul water to their troughs, at their own expense, without hope of recompense, for the sake of native wildlife and wild horses. But there are limits to what ranchers can do.
While the west's wild horse and burro population is also subject to control, traditionally attempted via gathers and fertility control, the BLM's own current estimates show the on-range population of wild horses and burros to be approximately 14,000 over appropriate management levels (AML).
While many public land users have speculated that the counts were far below actual numbers on the range, in 2013, the American Academy of Sciences determined that the BLM does not utilize "scientifically valid methodologies to make their estimates, or make an actual, accurate inventory, erring on the side of grossly undercounting horses." Indeed, this stands in stark, irrefutable contrast to the melodramatic, willfully misleading claims by wild horse "advocacy" groups that mustangs are being managed to extinction.
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So, what happens to these "grossly undercounted" populations of wild equids in a drought year? Take for example, Nevada, which is home to more than half of the total wild horses and burros in the west. Nevada's total AML is 12, 789. Actual populations are estimated to be 20,195. Early this year, nine of Nevada's seventeen counties were declared natural disaster areas by the USDA due to the drought. With grazing permits cut back due to forage availability, and with a resulting reduction in ranchers hauling water for their own stock on the range, where do the mustangs find water?
Wild horse "advocacy" is sadly more about litigating than it is about life-saving. Lawsuits filed by mustang aficionados to delay or even prevent gathers altogether often force the horses to remain where there is not sufficient water to sustain them. Horses languish while their salvation is held up in court, and if they don't die, their condition declines so drastically that a when long overdue gather does finally occur, it can be much harder on the horses. In some cases, this then leads to the BLM being accused of "inhumane treatment," when it was the advocates' own litigation that prevented gathering in a timely fashion.
Thus, it is not unheard of to find starved and dehydrated horses, some dead, and some desperately trying to slurp the last remnants of water from a mud hole. What, then, is the answer?
The BLM has allocated $6 million for gathers in fiscal year 2014, which is significantly less than what was spent in years previous. (Costs of $7.6 million were reported for 2011 and for 2012.) Facing a limited budget and excess horses, the BLM must still perform life-saving gathers. And yet, round-ups are decried and protested every step of the way by wild horse "advocates" who value the horses' miserable freedom over their most basic survival.