BLM can’t say how many wild horses roam Western rangelands

/ In The News, News
Photo by Meg Frederick

As published by E&E News

The Bureau of Land Management continues pushing a strategy to aggressively remove thousands of excess wild horses and burros from federal rangelands, and is asking Congress for an additional $35 million next year to continue carrying out this plan on parched Western rangelands.

But BLM can’t say how many wild horses and burros currently occupy federal rangelands, making it difficult to know whether the ongoing roundup efforts begun in late 2019 succeeded in cutting herd sizes.

The issue was raised during this week’s two-day hearing of BLM’s National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board. Celeste Carlisle, the board’s chair, asked a senior BLM official yesterday to give her the 2021 population count for wild horses and burros roaming federal rangelands.

Holle Waddell, acting chief of the Division of Wild Horses and Burros, said BLM doesn’t have that number yet. While individual state offices have pulled together the population counts within their boundaries, the bureau does not have a final population estimate number.

“We have been working on finalizing those tables and those numbers. We hope that we’ll be providing them to leadership and hope that they’ll get out here pretty soon,” Waddell said.

“But yeah, we know,” she added. “There’s a lot going on. We’re only so many people. Hopefully, that number will be out soon.”

The annual rangewide population estimate traditionally comes out in March or early April. A BLM spokesperson told E&E News there’s “no update” on when the latest population estimate numbers will be made public.

BLM’s last population estimate, based on March 2020 surveys, showed herd sizes had reached a record 95,114 wild horses and burros — nearly four times the number that BLM says the rangelands can sustain without damaging vegetation and soils.

The ongoing roundups removed about 11,000 horses in fiscal 2020 and 5,430 so far in the current fiscal 2021 budget cycle.

An accurate population number is also critical as the West — where most of the 177 federal herd management areas covering 27 million acres are located — continues grappling with extreme drought conditions scorching the landscape, as well as limiting food and water resources for wild horses and burros and other species.

BLM and Forest Service officials, along with members of the advisory board, said during the online hearing yesterday that the situation is already “dire” out on the range.

“We are seeing horses that are starving and dying,” said Teresa Drotar, the national wild horse and burro manager for the Forest Service, which manages about 20% of the wild horse populations on federal lands. BLM manages most federally protected horses.

While none of the advisory board members complained about BLM not having its annual population estimate number, some said they fear the worst as drought conditions intensify on most federal herd management areas.

They also warned of potential mass die-offs of animals.

“We have a mandate to humanely take care of these animals. And population crashes, there’s nothing humane about a population crash,” said Steven Yardley, a Utah rancher representing livestock management on the advisory board. “Essentially, what it means is starvation of the masses, or dehydration of the masses. And either one are outcomes that we don’t want to see happen.”

Yet federal land managers cannot move fast enough due to National Environmental Policy Act mandates, said Tammy Pearson, a rancher and Beaver County, Utah, commissioner representing public interests on the board.

Pearson, in observing what she has seen on her family’s property, and in talking to friends, likened conditions caused by the worsening drought gripping the West to the 1930s Dust Bowl era and said she fears the worse for wild horses, livestock and other animals.

“I cannot even imagine that it’s not going to end up being thousands of dead animals by the end of the summer, if not this winter,” she said.

She also disagreed with wild horse advocates, some of whom during a public comment session argued that there is no wild horse overpopulation problem and that the animals should be left alone.

“So these activist groups that don’t want us to gather, don’t want us to touch [the horses], they’re going to get what they asked for, unfortunately. And it’s going to be the most obvious, painful thing that we’ve ever seen,” she said.

Adoption program questions

The concerns over the survival of wild horses and burros on federal lands during the ongoing drought is why most of the advisory board members said they do not favor temporarily halting BLM’s Adoption Incentive Program.

The program has come under scrutiny after reports that some wild horses and burros adopted through the program, which pays people $1,000 for each animal adopted, were later sold, and ended up in private auctions and potentially sold to slaughter.

David Jenkins, BLM’s assistant director of resources and planning, reminded the board today that the Adoption Incentive Program has been “wildly successful,” resulting in the adoption of more than 7,500 animals since late 2019.

“We have to keep in mind this program has been dramatically effective,” said board member Tom Lenz, a veterinarian by training.

He added, “The fact that a horse goes to a public sale barn doesn’t mean that horse is going to end up going to Mexico or Canada to be processed for human consumption.”

Yardley said he agreed, and added that the fate of wild horses and burros on overcrowded rangelands during a drought is a far bigger concern than a “very, very small” number of adopted horses later being sold at auction.

“The overarching problem we’ve been talking about, there are literally thousands of horses that are facing a much worse fate than the slaughterhouse: that of starvation, or dying of dehydration. Literally thousands of horses,” he said. “So I guess I’m really frustrated, because I feel like there’s so much emphasis being put on this, and yet all of these other horses that face much more dire circumstances than what we’re talking about are literally being overlooked by the majority of the public.”

But the board members say they do support BLM thoroughly investigating the issue to correct the “loopholes” in the program and determine how best to move it forward.

They also say BLM should have issued a public statement addressing the issue.

Nada Culver, BLM’s deputy director of policy and programs, addressed the issue publicly for the first time yesterday, telling the board that the bureau is investigating the allegations (Greenwire, June 30).

“There was absolute silence from the agency, which does not mean they are not doing anything. But the appearance to the public is not good, and that can’t happen again,” Carlisle said.