Don’t Blame the Holy Cow (Fire, Sage Grouse, Ravens, Wild Horses)

May was Wild Fire Awareness Month. If you are heading out to public lands, or have a horse in a barn, we urge you to read our checklists on wildfire HERE.

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Roundup of Owyhee wild horses after the Martin Fire, citing sage grouse protection and funding

After an unusually long period of drought in the West we have had two winters with significant precipitation. This last winter saw many areas hitting seasonal records for rain. In the most arid states in the nation water is a precious commodity and can create wars over use, literally.  Depleted aquifers are getting some much needed relief. The desert has amazing regenerative powers and springs into overdrive in wet years.

There is a downside to more grasses; risk of fast moving wildfire.

Wildfire is a natural part of the ecosystem in the West. However, when that ecosystem has been damaged, fenced and manipulated through what humans call “management,” the systems clash and create further tragedy.

Humans try to blame something else and create other exploitation mechanisms out of mismanagement; they hide real causes of damage and look for relief funding to create more damage. In other words, if you don’t look at how we “got here,” and simply try to figure out how to keep doing the same things, you do not solve problems that lie at the root.

“Collaboration” has now been defined as “manipulation” in the federal land manager memo. We want to give you a glimpse of the charade in practice.

We know the article might be a bit long for some. However, you wont understand unless you read it. We sectioned the piece off so you can bookmark and return later. We know you have busy lives, but you are the only voices they have.

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12 wild horses removed, and 3 returned, to a livestock grazing allotment just outside the Martin fire boundary line, to “protect sage grouse and using some sage grouse funding”. The red barrel in the foreground is for hunters to drop the wing of a sage grouse they shot for genetic testing.

In July the Martin fire ripped through the Owyhee Complex reaching nearly 440,000 acres. The fire moved at speeds reportedly reaching 35 miles per hour. This fire is the largest single loss of wild horse habitat due to a fire event since the passage of the Wild Horse and Burro Act in 1971.

We will get back to “wild horses” later in this piece. However, all advocates should read the section on sage grouse and not just scroll to the wild horse specific section. 

Wild Horse advocates can learn a lot from the “game” of the Greater Sage Grouse

On Friday (yesterday) NPR aired a piece titled, “A Sea of Sagebrush Disappears, Making Way for Fire-Prone Cheatgrass.”  

A lot of news stories will begin with “fire season.” (This one just simply struck a nerve and inspired this entire article.)

The article is a bit of “soft sell” propaganda; cheatgrass is responsible for fire, fire is responsible for cheatgrass. The fire that destroys sage grouse habitat? Sage grouse are responsible for helping it spread.

Fire is no help to the endangered sage grouse, a bird that relies on sagebrush and has sparked controversy among ranchers, land managers, and the oil and gas industry across the West. More than 35 mating sites, or “leks,” were destroyed in the Martin Fire.

Some birds caught fire and flew ahead of the racing flames, trying to escape, only to fall to the Earth and ignite more rangeland.

Firefighters call them “streamers”.

Not one mention about why we have cheatgrass and how it spread in the first place. Cheatgrass spread with human expansion into western states. A invasive grass that “cheats” the native grasses by beginning it’s growing cycle early. Cattle were driven to and from mines, and later the railway, for sale, and the previously isolated areas became important cattle ranching areas. Cattle trails led to localized, intensive, overgrazing. Overgrazing was identified as a serious threat to rangeland health in the late 1800s.

Cheatgrass has changed the fire cycle from 30-70 years to a shorter cycle of 3-10. Grass fires move fast in cheatgrass and burn hot. Fire in the West has changed. Now the cattle trampling that created an environment for cheatgrass to spread, is now the subject of using cattle to eat cheat to control it’s spread. That’s one of the popular topics now in “land management.”

A lot of dollars have come from “Sage Grouse Protection.”

Removing juniper trees is said to create “sage grouse habitat”  because it creates more grassland, and is good for the rancher, (many sagebrush valleys have been destroyed by livestock). These are the kinds of things BLM public relations calls “a win, win.” (But they do not talk about the fact that juniper were cut and used to create charcoal for mines and many ecologists call the spread of juniper a “recovery.” They also do not talk about the species that live in the trees.) You can see some of this chat HERE.

Cattle also increase the presence of ravens that prey on young Sage Grouse. USGS foundRaven abundance in the sagebrush-steppe of the American West has increased three-fold during the last four decades… the probability of raven occurrence increased by 45.8 percent in areas where cattle were present.” So, the federal government came up with funding to kill ravens (pilot project in Idaho to kill thousands of ravens).

Millions of dollars, years of meetings and countless hours, state-by-state conferences,  created Sage Grouse 2.0 under Obama. A “collaborative” plan that stopped the listing of the Greater Sage Grouse (GSG) under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). If the GSG was listed, industry would come to a halt. Millions of dollars in GSG money was diverted into subsidies for livestock, mining, oil and gas projects to “mitigate” damages.

Wild Horse Education was at some of the meetings, the only wild horse organization in the room. The plan set “removing wild horses” as a number one “box to check” in GSG funding priorities. At these meetings the mere mention of the words “wild horses” was contentious. Attempting to get simple language changes that incorporated the $1.5 million dollar national Academy of Sciences (NAS) study on wild horses met with a stonewall and a ridiculous game of evasion. The concept of “collaboration” was not any collaborative effort, it was a one sided dialogue that included outright intimidation and suppression of voices protecting any environmental interest in practice. (the game of evasion even included the person in charge of the GSG planning seeing us at one entrance of a motel and quickly using a back door).  

Environmentalists warned the plan was not strong enough and doomed to failure. 

One of the very first actions of this administration was to toss 2.0, a plan that already gave industry far too many opportunities to destroy habitat, and created more meetings, with a very select invitee list, to come up with another plan. These meetings were populated by big corporate interests, a few that held a public mantle of “advocate,” that sat with livestock, oil and gas. A virtual split occurred in the environmental community and many organizations have backed even further away from any use of the word “collaboration.”

Sage Grouse “collaboratives” that created funding to destroy trees, kill ravens, and even remove wild horses, have deteriorated even further under this administration. Prohibition on oil and gas has shrunk by more than 80 percent, from 10.7 million acres to 1.8 million.

Article from Pacific Standard (click text to read):

It also shows how risky compromise can be, especially when dealing with corporate interests concerned above all about their bottom line: If the sage grouse had been listed under the ESA, rather than protected by a weaker collaborative effort that was heavily influenced by industry players, it would still enjoy stringent federal protections. As things stand now, it is a bird with an uncertain future that may well continue its long-term decline.


Owyhee wild horses captured in 2016 as part of the push to protect sage grouse

Wild Horses

During this same time frame some corporate “advocacy” organizations joined the exact factions using the Greater Sage Grouse (GSG) to forward their profit lines; to divert funding out of protections and into projects to ensure their interests are prioritized. (see here for more) The proposal being waved as an “agreement on wild horses” is doomed to failure, just like the GSG; it solves not one issue faced by the wild horse, prioritizes new subsidies and guts existing law (that is already a very weak law).

One of the sound bites they are using is that the 15,000-20,000 wild horses proposed to be removed from the range each year, over three years, to reach an arbitrarily set Appropriate Management Level (AML), will prioritize areas of “safety and environmental concern.” The BLM already uses that justification in how they allot funding for roundups and sets the yearly schedule. All this soundbite achieves is a larger purse to draw from to placate industry.

In addition, those priorities will allow BLM to use “safe fertility control.” As many of you are aware comments are now due on June 12 for the next round of plans to spay mares at Warm Springs. Safe fertility control includes gelding. The phrase is not “scientifically justified that wont harm behavior or genetic stability,” in federal speak it just means “wont cause more than 15% to drop dead in 24 hours.” BLM has already stated they want completely non-reproducing herds, some herds sterilized by as much as 80%, and want even broader discretion to determine where and how.

The plan also guts the Act. The BLM Report to Congress claims they will need changes to their authorities to achieve priorities (rigorous removal and fertility control). The changes to authorities gut existing law; allowing even less analysis of proposed actions and impeding the ability to litigate violations of law.

When the opposition to wild horses claims advocate litigation is a problem, there is no mention that the livestock industry frequently files litigation on grazing decisions. Is  that the same “problem” as a case filed by a wild horse advocate? When an advocate wins litigation, it means there was a violation of law. It means BLM is really bad at it’s job and screws up paperwork, has no data to justify a proposed action or makes an absurd claim that hitting a horse with a chopper is “ok.”

Funds have been diverted from GSG protections into removals of wild horses. The proposed changes in the Appropriations bill not only provide addition direct funding to remove wild horses, but it also allows funding for range improvement after wild horses are removed. That means funding will be diverted to more cow chow, fencing, tree killing, just like in the GSG plan. It protects nothing, it just gives more funding for devastation of the wild place and wild things.

The proposed “Stewart Agreement” is as bad as the GSG plans. It is a corrupt game of politics that includes internal involvement by BLM employees to change policy, intimidate and prioritize their “buddy system.” (more HERE)

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An example of how the BLM currently prioritizes limited funding was the Triple B roundup of 2018 (helicopter roundups run from the first day of July through the last day of Feb. Bait trap can occur all year). Triple B was prioritized to remove wild horses from roads where a mine was planning an expansion, and a powerful political livestock permittee ran his cows.

BLM did not prioritize funding at Cold Creek, where they share responsibility with Forest Service, the range is degraded in subset areas from past overgrazing by domestic livestock and a public insistent on feeding wild horses and acclimating them to those areas for photos. BLM knew Cold Creek would end up in an “emergency situation” and did nothing until crisis was on the verge of reality. BLM prioritized the politics of mining and livestock and hit Triple B instead.

That type of action exists today, and what the current language in the political dance of “collaboration” gives even more money, to continue to mismanage; politics over science and common sense.

WHE even created a free magazine of Triple B to give you an overview of the paper game, the reality of the wild horse and the outcome HERE. 

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Owyhee removal post Martin Fire; in the name of sage grouse, again

The Martin fire moved extremely fast and flames were reported at over 45 ft tall. Very heavy fuel loads (grasses, this is not a “forest fire”), of 200-1000 times the normal loads, fed a fire that was “faster than a horse” according to a quote in the Reno Gazette Journal.

Many of you know these horses from watching the work of Wild Horse Education. In 2010 our founder filed litigation to observe a roundup of wild horses (1,224 captured), won the case, but then was chased around and threatened with arrest. In 2012 WHE was back and filed a case against handling (we won and then attempted to work with the BLM state office under Amy Lueders to address the other allegations in our case, that the National Academy of Sciences confirmed, that BLM had no data to justify any action). In 2012 BLM removed about 900 horses (we won in court when they ran horses through barbed wire, hot shots in the face and ran babies to collapse). We filed to address a BLM roundup at Snowstorm (an HMA in the Owyhee complex), BLM cancelled the operation.

In 2016 WHE was back at a winter roundup where 1,178 wild horses were captured. This operation was to “protect sage grouse.”  The focal point of this operation was protection of GSG habitat. That habitat has now burned because of “too much grass.”

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What it all looks like for the wild horse

Again in 2016, during a priority habitat removal under the GSG funding, BLM did a large roundup at Owyhee. BLM captured nearly 2000 wild horses in winter, December 2016. (you can see roundups at Owyhee by scrolling through archives HERE)

On July 5 of 2018, when we had an estimated 1,400 wild horses (including estimated foals born) on the 1.5 million acre operation area (Complex and interspersed), the Martin fire broke out. Grass loads of up to 1000 times the normal burned over 400,000 acres (with never a mention of the large removals of wild horses before the fire due to assertions there were no resources to support that many).

From July, through the date of the removal operation, we repeatedly asked BLM to be included in any planning and data collection post fire, we were not. We repeatedly offered help, we were not allowed. We repeatedly asked for fire casualty numbers as reports came in that pits were dug and cows, horses and other wildlife were buried, we received no stats. (We will write an article about our experience in the “hostage negotiations” that the BLM wild horse program actually is; what it is like to try to actually work with BLM, soon.)

In September of 2018 BLM began an “emergency” roundup and took the population of wild horses down to about 534, less than the low end AML using the fire and sage grouse as justification.

During the operation there were instances where the BLM totals did not match the math from the day before (HERE).

BLM reported 25 wild horses died at the time of the operation, yet did not report on how many died in the facility (BLM stopped posting many stats in 2016 and “page not found” is now a common reality when researching any statistics on the BLM website).

Of the 25 reported dead one mare had scarring on over 30% of her body. BLM called it a “skin disease” and not a “fire survivor.” She was the only wild horse with such a “disease.” She was killed.

Nine more wild horses were killed due to blindness, seven of them were called “albino.” Were any of them the mares released in 2016 that suffered extreme head trauma? We will never know because BLM does not track wild horses that way.

BLM left the population below AML, 5 HMAs that have operational boundaries as 1.5 million acres, at 534 wild horses. Not one of the issues involving inaccurate data, no scientific justification, has been fixed. (we will write another article soon that focuses on “why.”)

In 8 years BLM removed over 3000 wild horses from a 1.5 million acre complex with some of the best grazing land in the state of Nevada, more than 2000 of them before the largest grassfire in Nevada’s recorded history.

All of this was done the name of Sage Grouse protection. Post fire we have more fencing and seeding, for livestock, and much of the funding from GSG.

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Captured in 2018

At this time we felt it was important to show you what “collaborative planning” looks like for wild horses. The exact same individuals and organization that claim to have an “advocate agreement” because huge corporate organizations selling product, and selling out wild horses, (HSUS, ASPCA, RTF) joined the table. We have not been invited to participate in a single meeting.

These are the same people that met in Reno last week to further “negotiate” a piece of the wild horse pie. The Reno summit was nothing more than a trade show with vendors competing to sell their wares, it solves nothing.

To solve any problem you need to begin with the real problem: the politics of range management that have nothing to do with protecting the range. The problems begin and end with prioritization of profit lines, ego romps with friends “with benefits,” and corruption.

We will fight back.

Help us stay in the fight. 


Take action HERE. 

Our wild horses live on public lands. The Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act (WFRH&B Act) does have the legal definition of “range” clearly stated: “range” means the amount of land necessary to sustain an existing herd or herds of wild free-roaming horses and burros, which does not exceed their known territorial limits, and which is devoted principally but not necessarily exclusively to their welfare in keeping with the multiple-use management concept for the public lands; 

Wild horses are confined to an extremely limited amount of public lands, about 11%. If you read the law you would make an assumption that on that fraction of public lands wild horses have a lot of the resource. When hearing the phrase “overpopulated” many make an assumption that wild horses have eaten a lot of grass and it becomes “unfair” to others that share those acres. Nothing could be further from the truth.

To learn more, so you can understand the greater context of the article presented above:

Trespass Livestock on the Range; what you should know.

The Deputy Director Game; avoid scrutiny and play games with the law

The “Stewart Alliance” and the big corporate players behind it


Categories: Lead, Wild Horse Education