Wild Horse Advocates Respond to BLM Advisory Board’s Recent Recommendations

Barbara Clarke is the Director of DreamCatcher Wild Horse and Burro Sanctuary. Laura Leigh is the founder of Wild Horse Education. Here, they respond to recent headlines regarding the BLM Advisory Board’s recommendation for dealing with “unadoptable” wild horses in its off-range holding pens. 

Today you can click on any news service and you will see an article about the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board’s recommendation to kill wild horses in holding facilities. The BLM has said they are not going to follow that recommendation. But this may only be a temporary denial as there will continue to be pressure from Congress and users of public lands to remove horses. News articles have quoted this decision by the Advisory Board members saying they “considered all options” prior to making this recommendation. But the question is, did they?

First, the National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board is not the BLM and has no legal authority. Congress has repeatedly defunded the killing of healthy wild horses. The Advisory Board has made this recommendation in the past without using the same language. It didn’t happen then, nor can happen without going through a dozen other channels first, including Congress. Second, the citizen Advisory Board did not look at the larger picture and the solutions that are available. If it were true that the BLM is doing all that it can to manage our public lands based on science and hard work and was still having extraordinary problems, the statement of looking at mass killing as a necessity might be valid. It’s simply not.

One of the greatest challenges is creating a conversation based on the 1971 law that protects wild horses and burros and the reality of the entire picture of public lands. Before having a conversation about killing horses, we need to begin to understand and work toward solving the problem of broken management practices and policy across all our public lands.

A wild horse is chased into a BLM trap area. (©Laura Leigh)
A wild horse is chased into a BLM trap area.
(©Laura Leigh)

A good place to start is to realize that wild horses and burros represent a resource, not a use. What does that mean? It means that private entities can apply for a permit to utilize public land for personal profit. Examples of public land uses including: mining, livestock grazing, hunting, off-road racing, etc. A public resource needs to be preserved and protected for the public good; grass, water quality, minerals, and wildlife—including wild horses and burros. Any conversation that leads to decision-making must begin with that knowledge; it should be ingrained in each and every discussion point. In order to integrate each interest (meaning anything and everything that people want to do or see on public land) into any decision that achieves sustainable, sane, equitable outcomes, this distinction must be understood.

Wild horses and burros make up a very small portion of the public resource. About 11% of public land managed by the BLM contains areas that Congress has designated for this resource to exist. Within these areas, we expect to see the resource preserved and protected as a wild species, as defined by Congress and supported by the U.S. Supreme Court in Kleppe v. New Mexico, 426 U.S. 529 (1976).

Unfortunately, we like to blame symptoms for the disease. In the case of wild horses and burros, the ‘blame’ falls on overpopulation, which results in the destruction of public lands. This ‘symptom’, which is often anecdotal, ends up with a mythology of its own and compounds the problem, preventing an effective conversation that could change the root of poor land management, and so the cycle repeats again.

If the wild horse issue were the reason for degraded habitat, then we would only have the problem of degraded habitat where we have wild horses, and we do not. If wild horses were overpopulated, as the myth implies, we would have reams of scientific data, using modern methods to support that contention, and we do not. Last year, the BLM said there were 35,000 horses on public lands, then it became 46,000, and the number used at the Advisory Board meeting this month was a whopping 75,000 horses in the wild. Does this math make any sense to anyone? After all, horses do not have litters, and a portion of wild horses are male.

Wild horses in holding, adoptions, a volatile political environment, range degradation, and lack of cogent science are all symptoms of broken land management practices across the board. The wild horse issue itself is a symptom of land management problems, not a distinct issue. Only so much grass grows and only so much rain falls on a resource that is supposed to be managed equitably.

Some advocates suggest moving forward by embracing the lesser of the evils in practice. Fertility control is one solution that is often presented as a way to avoid roundups, holding pens, and slaughter. This conversation must be maintained, though, within an understanding of public lands and the horses and burros that inhabit it. Our narrative must be more robust than the current, oversimplified and data-poor offering. Fertility control is a tool, one of many we need in a science-based tool box. It is a door by which powerful data can be collected, and we must be willing to have that conversation. We also must actually use the tool.

A small family band at DreamCatcher Sanctuary. (©Elyse Gardner)
A small family band at DreamCatcher Sanctuary. (©Elyse Gardner)

Before we ever get to a solution, we have to cut through the lack of basic information about the law and public lands and the perpetuation of myth. Myth and politics rule the conversation, because if your objective is to obstruct progress, that is an extremely effective strategy. It has worked for more than 100 years in public land management, and for more than 40 years in obstructing the creation of a sustainable wild horse program. If we have broad scale range degradation across the board, even where we have no wild horses, then we need to address the causes. According to some bizarre rule of land management, it appears that if the region in question is a Herd Management Area (HMA), all the issues stem from horses. Is that logical? Can any of those conversations be made by anyone proposing a solution?

In 2013, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) crafted a report on the Wild Horse and Burro Program which addressed, among other things, the organization’s lack of data. The BLM national office still has not created a list of recommendations from the report, nor has it issued a mandate that could translate into on-the-ground management changes. That lack of action is a point of pressure that interested parties can pursue with vigor, with the goal of creating meaningful policy in order to change practice.

Further, the lack of data noted by the NAS is a problem for the BLM across the board. This year, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report acknowledging that livestock grazing and trespass livestock are very big problems for public lands. Yet how we allocate forage to domestic livestock is also data- and logic-poor. Grazing use impacts 66% of public land, including the 11% that is occupied by wild horses. One cannot ignore the impact of a ‘use’ on a ‘resource’. (Remember, wild horses are a considered a resource, not a use.)

Another example of data shortage in regard to livestock grazing is the lack of timely rangeland health assessments. Unless there is a valid rangeland health assessment and a livestock grazing permit issued less than two years since its evaluation, wild horses should not be held accountable—particularly during periods of drought—for any degradation to the range. Until the BLM catches up on the whopping 80% backlog of permit evaluations, no wild horse should be removed. Livestock is a use, a privilege. Wild horses are a resource to be preserved. We need to stop making a resource accountable for a use. Uses must be accountable to the resource. The BLM must be accountable to their responsibility to regulate the landscape.

 Although not mentioned as often, hundreds of wild burros are also at-risk (©Barbara Clarke)
Although not mentioned as often, hundreds of wild burros are also at risk.
(©Barbara Clarke)

Although the general public envisions the West as wide open spaces, our public lands have become a series of fenced areas crisscrossed by highways. There is no such thing as open range. Within their designated areas, wild horses and burros are trying to survive in an ever-shrinking landscape where fencing effects migration routes and water sources. The latter are often allocated only for livestock use and are susceptible to drought—a condition that will increase, according to scientific evaluation, as a result of global climate change.

Only when we begin to address the reality of public lands can we talk solutions. Many of these solutions will be area-specific, not all-encompassing, and it is imperative that we support them with good policy. In this way, we have room for all parties to participate. Some on-the-ground, some in Washington D.C., some in researching and developing new technologies for data collection, some examining the current law, others shaping the narrative and spreading the word to the general voting public. All of us must be educated about the big picture of public land management within which all wildlife—including wild horses and burros—live.

Wild horses are a part of a complex conversation. We must engage the entire picture in order to ensure that these animals remain a part of it. We must embrace wild horses as one aspect of that big picture and stop addressing their issues as though they exist in a vacuum. Is any conversation that involves killing horses that lost their freedom because of our failure to address issues appropriate? No. It is lazy, ignorant, and simply clears the way for the Wild Horse and Burro Program to continue to fail.

About the Authors

BARBARA CLARKE became Director of the 2000-acre DreamCatcher Wild Horse and Burro Sanctuary in northeastern California after a career in the defense industry where she worked on certain segments of nuclear weapons. She has written numerous articles on the meaning of sanctuary in a technological society and won the prestigious San Jose Mercury News Silver Pen award. Clarke was named one of nine most influential women in animal welfare by Town & Country magazine, was featured in the 2002 International Animal World Encyclopedia and was on the board of directors of The Association of Sanctuaries, where she helped develop standards of sanctuary business ethics.

LAURA LEIGH is the founder and President of the Nevada-based wild equine advocacy organization, Wild Horse Education. She has heavily documented roundups, range conditions and other facets of the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Management Program, work that enabled her to successfully sue the federal government for inhumane capture methods and First Amendment issues. Her suit led to a landmark ruling that is now being used in civil rights cases nationwide.