Wyoming stakeholders concerned about wild horse reforms
Many who have a stake in wild horse management in Wyoming agree that the Feb. 24 announcement of “fundamental reforms” to the BLM’s wild horse and burro management strategies don’t bode well.
At a time when there are 12,000 extra horses running on the West’s rangelands, the BLM has said they will reduce gathers by 24 percent over the next two years while waiting for the results of a study by the National Academy of Science (NAS) – a study that’s received a $1.3 million dollar allocation at a time when the U.S. House has cut the BLM’s budget by $2 million.
“This doesn’t bode well for the range and forage resources, for wildlife resources or for sage grouse,” says National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board member Renee Taylor of Casper.
While Taylor has served on the board as one of two livestock industry representatives, she says her position has been eliminated and she’s not sure when the new appointment will be made to take her place. The BLM has replaced her livestock industry position with a position that calls for an “equine specialist with special knowledge of equine behavior.”
Of the reduction in gathers, Taylor says, “It’s very contradictory, because the BLM is committed to sage grouse conservation.”
“We’re quite concerned about what came out on Feb. 24 for a number of reasons,” says Wyoming State Grazing Board Rangeland Consultant Dick Loper. “Immediate to that release is the recognition that, aside from the rhetoric, we’re disappointed they haven’t come out and proposed an effective resolution to the multitude of wild horse issues that exist on western lands. We feel they’ve taken a huge step backward by recommending the only immediate solution is a reduction in roundups.”
Taylor adds that the first management tool to be cut because of a funding shortage is gathering, because it’s “optional.”
“Feeding the horses already in holding is their primary responsibility. They have taken on those horses, and they have the responsibility to feed them. But, they could take the $1.3 million from the NAS study and gather horses,” suggests Taylor.
The annual budget for gathers is $7.5 million – 10 percent of the $75.7 million FY2011 budget. The FY2011 budget is almost double what is has been over the last few years.
“The first charge of the BLM is to protect the resource, and they absolutely can’t do that with an overpopulation of horses,” says Advisory Board member Gary Zakotnik of Eden, who represents the livestock industry.
Taylor says the only thing that’s kept Wyoming rangelands somewhat protected is the consent decree between the state and the BLM that says the agency must keep wild horse numbers to appropriate management levels (AMLs).
“It’s our understanding that the consent decree should still be followed by the BLM, but we also know the national policies and Congressional budget will impact whether or not the BLM will comply in the future,” says Loper. “The decree does convey that if they don’t have the money some of the terms and the conditions in the decree will not be possible.”
Loper says he knows the local and state BLM offices don’t want to see it happen, but the $2 million reduction in funding could be enough for the national BLM to refuse compliance with the consent decree.
Wyoming Department of Agriculture (WDA) Director Jason Fearneyhough says he doesn’t know what the impact will be on the consent decree, but he says he’s been in contact with the WDA attorney to work on the issue. Of the 2013 sunset on the current consent decree, Fearneyhough says the WDA has been in conversation with the BLM on extending the current consent decree.
“If the BLM doesn’t want to go that route we go back to the drawing board and get there the same way we got the current consent degree – by working through legal channels,” he explains. “My hope is that we can extend the one we have. It’s been a good tool for Wyoming, for agriculture and for management of the horses in general. It’s helped the BLM do their job.”
“The BLM says they listened at the meeting held in Denver, Colo. last August, and they say they’ve listened to the 9,000 public comments that came in, but there were a series of comments they received that included extreme concern about the range resource and wildlife, and by the time the horses are starving or dying of thirst the rest of the wildlife is gone,” says Taylor. “WAFWA (Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies) and individual state wildlife agencies were present at the meeting to express extreme concern about how the horse numbers are increasing while the rest of us are supposed to manage our part of the resource. They’ve got to manage the horses,” she continues.
Taylor says she sees a lot in the strategy that’s aimed at appeasing horse advocacy groups instead of taking a strong look at the resource on the ground.
“It will be 2013 by the time the NAS review is done, and the agency will be in a holding pattern until then,” she says.
“They know what the research is,” says Taylor of the BLM. “The people in the horse program are good people, and they’re trying to do a good job, but the horse advocates keep coming out and saying they’re not.”
Of the goal to increase wild horse adoptions by 33 percent, Taylor says the agency can’t force people to adopt horses, especially at a time when they’re still financially strapped.
“I have a hard time imagining how they’ll increase adoptions – they already have an aggressive adoption program with the Extreme Mustang Makeover and the Mustang Heritage Foundation. They’re already doing everything short of giving horses away – even offering two-for-one deals at horse facilities,” she says.
Of fertility control measures, she says she’s excited about increasing the number of horses treated with fertility control, but that the projected 2,000 horses treated is a “drop in the bucket.”
“There’s a limited amount of land for housing horses,” says Taylor. “They’re avoiding the tough question – what do we do with the 41,000 horses in long-term holding? What do we do with the annual increase? They’re sidestepping the hard issue of what to do with the horses, whether that is euthanasia, slaughter for consumption or something else. It’s unpopular, but it’s reality. We’ve got to do something with the excess, or every other resource out there gets harvested in one way or another.”
“I’m pretty frustrated by where the program’s going, because they are avoiding the tough question, and they are ignoring what’s been brought to them by the range and wildlife folks,” says Taylor. “It’s a sad situation, because it could be a good program.”
“As far as I’m concerned, from the wild horse ranges I’ve seen in Nevada and Wyoming, the BLM’s wild horse program is the worst permittee they have,” says Zakotnik.
Of the announcement’s content, Fearneyhough says, “It seems to propose some solutions where the BLM doesn’t have control over the outcome. I don’t know that they can control how many horses they adopt out, or the outcome of fertility treatments.”
The Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board’s next meeting is scheduled for March 10-11 in Phoenix, Ariz. Loper says that will be the first opportunity for many to make a public statement over the agency’s direction with the program.