The end of wild horses in Southwest Wyoming may come not with the sound of a helicopter but the scratch of a bureaucrat’s pen.
On Thursday, the Bureau of Land Management began a 4,300-horse helicopter roundup on five wild horse Herd Management Areas that encompass 3.44 million acres of federal, state and private land in the region.
The agency plans to permanently remove 3,500 wild horses out of a BLM-estimated population of 5,105 and to return to the range 800 horses, half of them mares treated with fertility control.
That will leave about 1,605 wild horses, or one horse for every 2,141 acres.
Just as horrific as decimating family bands and herd groups during this roundup is the BLM’s long-term plan. It would remove 2.4 million acres from wild horse use — an 87% reduction — in the region.
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Last January, the BLM released a draft Resource Management Plan that would allow the agency to meet the terms of a consent decree it entered into in 2013 with the Rock Springs Grazing Association.
The ranching group sued for the removal of all of the wild horses from the 2-million-acre Checkerboard region, an unfenced area of alternating, one-mile-square blocks of public and private land set up in the 1860s as part of negotiations with the Union Pacific railroad.
As it stands, BLM already allows up to 191,791 Animal Unit Months of private livestock grazing on allotments overlapping the Herd Management Areas to as low as 18,600 AUM for wild horses (one AUM is the amount of forage needed to sustain one cow-calf pair, one horse or five sheep for one month).
Though not yet finalized, BLM’s preferred option for amending its Resource Management Plan would: remove all wild horses from the Salt Wells and Great Divide Basin Herd Management Areas, slash the Adobe Town HMA’s agency-set population target from 800 horses to a maximum of 450, and manage the White Mountain HMA as a non-reproducing herd, effectively zeroing it out, too.
It’s as if the roundup now underway is prematurely carrying out the amended Resource Management Plan without it being approved.
BLM’s preferred plan demonstrates explicit bias. It considers only reallocating forage from wild horses to other wildlife or livestock without making an equivalent amount of forage available to wild horses elsewhere.
The agency is set to make this decision without providing any analysis of the loss of forage and acreage that comes with removing these wild horses and no ecological analysis for lowering the number of wild horses it allows on the Adobe Town HMA.
The BLM is also considering population management tools that are dangerous, inhumane, unproven, costly (surgical sterilization of mares), ineffective (sex-ratio skewing) or that do not have a fully understood effect on wild herds (gelding stallions).
BLM’s lone reason for zeroing out wild horses on two Herd Management Areas is the difficulty of creating a barrier between public and private lands.
The BLM apparently did not consider land swaps or other possible solutions, like scaling up a program of safe, proven and humane fertility control, an effort that would help lead to stabilization and a decrease, where necessary, of wild horse populations, with fewer horses ending up in already overcrowded off-range holding facilities at great taxpayer expense.
Furthermore, BLM’s preferred option would set a precedent that a special-interest association could demand the removal of wild horses from not just private but public lands.
On this, however, the courts have already ruled.
In 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit sided with Return to Freedom and other wild horse advocates, ruling that conducting a 2014 wild horse roundup on the Checkerboard without going through a full planning process violated both the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act and Federal Land Policy Management Act.
The court ruled that BLM lacked the authority to treat the entire Checkerboard as private land from which wild horses must be removed.
There is no question that managing free-roaming wild horses in the Checkerboard is a challenge, but difficulty alone is an insufficient excuse for the agency charged with conserving America’s wild herds.
Federally protected wild horse populations on public lands must not be allowed to be removed due to private landowner pressure or, soon, whole herds will vanish not just from Wyoming but from across the West.