Wyoming seeks to tame wild horse population
July 1, 2015
Another legal action from the State of Wyoming seems to amount to little more than one more dusty step in a failed political process as it pertains to wild horses.
Wyoming Governor Matt Mead on June 19 directed his attorney general to appeal a recent federal court decision. That decision dismisses the state's 2014 lawsuit against the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management over its management of the wild horse.
Wyoming sued to require both the department and the bureau to comply with the Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act, which it claims is not being properly enforced.
"The situation has not changed – the BLM has still not properly managed the wild horse population in Wyoming," Mead said in a prepared statement. "Mismanagement of the herds can have adverse consequences for the range and other species which share that habitat. The BLM's approach fails to comply with the applicable law."
Ranchers and activists become strange bedfellows in any argument about the future of the wild horse.
Both sides are likely to agree with the governor that things aren't so great out there. Both sides study data from the BLM and draw different conclusions, but both agree the land is stressed. Neither wants to see the wild horse in holding pens or taxpayer dollars wasted. But their definitions of waste are varied.
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An activist in California looks at trends and decides that wild horses may soon be wiped out. A rancher near Rock Springs looks at the same statistics and concludes that there will soon be nothing but wild horses on leases his family has grazed for generations.
Add in pressure from the energy industry, the competing interests of endangered species like the sage grouse and the black-footed ferret, top that with environmental concerns and it's not hard to understand why a simple solution is simply not emerging fast enough.
And the range horses are still breeding.
It's all gotten too political, says Eden, Wyoming, rancher Gary Zakotnik, who's just outside Rock Springs.
Zakotnik spent 12 years on an advisory board to the BLM trying to find a solution. His last three years of service weren't worth his time, he says. Disillusioned, he stepped down.
"At one time," says Zakotnik, "the whole board thought we could act to help the Bureau of Land Management come up with a program that everybody could abide by or at least live with. But the advocacy groups got more and more powerful and could bend more and more politicians' ears until we just became a rubber stamp."
Meet Deniz Bolbol, communications director for American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign. She doesn't feel she has enough sway.
"There's no money in wild horses," Bolbol says, "and agricultural lobbyists are in control of Congress."
Bolbol looks at the recent filing and only sees more mismanagement. "I can't believe that the governor of Wyoming is continuing to waste taxpayer dollars on meritless lawsuits."
A certain logic would suggest that a symbol of the America West is perhaps best understood by the west, even as it remains a national treasure.
Zakotnik certainly thinks so.
"I think it's about votes and it's about money, and that's not the way the west deals with problems," Zakotnik says. "I think we could settle it."
A reasonable way forward, he says, would likely involve a combination of strategies to include better birth control of the wild horse, some round ups for adoption, and some slaughter.
"We don't make this stuff up. We use BLM numbers," Bolbol says. "If we look at the trajectory over the last 40 years, if something doesn't change, there will be very few to no wild horses in the foreseeable future. We are zeroing out wild horse territory."
Probably no lease holder will sit still long and be called a "welfare rancher" or put up with alarmist claims that ranchers are out to exterminate the wild horse, and the preservation group does use both to describe the situation.
Bolbol said her agency uses phrases like "welfare rancher" because ranchers get their leases for a fraction of their true market value, creating a business that is subsidized by taxpayers.
But even if dialog could produce a useful conversation about better resource allocation and more humane management of the horse, none of that matters if BLM is laying down on the job and the powers that be don't have the political will to change it.
It wasn't always such a big deal, says Niels Hansen, who has pulled over in downtown Rawlins and is talking from his Bluetooth. His roots trace back to the remount horses and sheep of the 1880s.
"My family raised quarter horses and Belgians among the feral horses without a problem," he says. "We did some cross breeding with the wild horse for pack animals and what not, and we did this well before the Wild Horse And Burro Act."
Hansen, who runs a cow calf operation outside of Rawlins in the infamous checkerboard area where federal, state, and private land intermingle, has had his share of trouble with the wild horse.
His comments became part of recent legal action that resulted in a gather in the Rock Springs area. Some animals from the Red Desert herd were wreaking havoc.
"I told them how the horses were affecting me," he says. "They were coming into our grazing allotments, through gates left open during hunting season and over fences after a big snow."
It isn't always the number of horses that is the issue. One summer, wild studs made for some long days doctoring cattle.
"All the young studs that were whipped out of the herd were at our fence," he says. "We had to move our saddle horses twenty miles down the road, and every time we wanted to doctor something, that's where we had to drive to pick them up and bring them back. We did that all summer."
Back in the day, he says, ranchers would get together and go out and gather wild horses for breaking, for sale, and for slaughter if the numbers became a "nuisance."
"Now it's mismanaged. It's a wreck. It's the riders that prohibit the use of the language in the law."
Zakotnik says BLM land managers would love to do more.
"The land managers on the ground, they know the damage that the horses are doing," he says. "The premise is to manage the resource, and they're failing to do it with wild horse management. The law gives the BLM all the authority they need to do what they have to do."
He says activist groups blow things out of proportion, distorting the facts and demonizing his kind.
"They can't generate funds without controversy," he says. "Ranchers are active environmentalists – we are not environmental activists. We've taken care of the same piece of land for over a hundred years."
"We need more opportunities to work together, to come to the table," Bolbol says.
Zakotnik says the time has come when there are a fewer and fewer people ranching, and that is an ominous prospect. "We do have some clout. We can stand up and raise heck but the wild horse people still have a lot of votes."
Without his lease, he'd hang up his spurs. "Our ranch, after a hundred and sixteen years, would be out of business. We can't maintain our cow herd, feed them all summer and winter on our deeded land."
Bolbol said she didn't have a good way to come up with how many wild horses America should have, but would ballpark the land allotment. "We are for the fair share of resources between livestock and wild horses. At least fifty-fifty."
"There are so many different groups," Hansen says, "And everybody thinks their group is the most important. You've got the sage chicken, and the black ferret. Nobody wants to give up anything. Nobody seems to realize that we have got to preserve the land or we won't have anything to work with."
It wouldn't look like home without the wild horse, Zakotnik says.
"I don't think there's any rancher who doesn't enjoy seeing a few wild horses running around," he says, "but we are still resource-oriented. If we don't take care of the land, we don't have anything."