Wild Horse Education

Countdown to Helicopter Season (part 3)

Centennial burro helicopter roundup begins May 28, our team is onsite

A helicopter drive draws in the media and the public. However, that moment in time is simply that, one moment in a severely broken system. 

A series of articles about roundups; how, why, who and what we can do to create change. 

Part 1 : Funding.

Part 2: CAWP 

Part 3: Paperwork (remove, not manage)

Roundups begin long before the chopper flies.

In order to make the yearly BLM roundup schedule all the paperwork needs to be in order. That paper trail is governed under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

When the Wild Horse and Burro program began federal agencies simply created removals without even doing any review of their action.

The first official roundup under the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act met with the first legal action from advocacy of that time. The state challenged federal authority and wanted to impound the horses and take them to the slaughter auction. Advocates were challenging the fact that the permittee (at Stone Cabin) had grazed the range to dirt and they were removing only wild horses.

The court ruled the 1971 Act was legitimate. However, the court stated BLM must comply with NEPA. “This Court is not saying that the BLM is free to round up wild horses whenever a particular range has an overgrazing problem. Nor is the Court saying that every time the removal of wild horses will have a limited, slightly positive effect on the environment of the range, the BLM can proceed to remove a certain number of those horses. BLM officials admit that more round-ups of wild horses may be necessary in the future. This Court decides only that the Stone Cabin Valley round up currently underway may continue as an interim measure to preserve the range until the EIS required by Judge Flannery is filed in 1977…”

Stone Cabin wild horses

The Act passed into law in 1971. From 1971-1976 the “claiming period” essentially continued to allow mustanging under the premise that the horses captured were “private property” and many permittees cleared their livestock grazing allotments (public lands) of wild horses so that the federal government would not place another restriction on their cattle and sheep. The roundup at Stone Cabin required BLM to comply with the NEPA process, that governed public lands activities, when addressing wild horses and burros. Boundary lines were drawn in 1976, that did not include the land “where presently found” in 1971 when the Act passed. The “claiming period” ended. In 1976 the Federal Land Management and Policy Act (FLPMA) approved the use of motorized vehicles to capture wild horses and burros.

By the time the 1980’s rolled around BLM created the first handbook for managing wild horses. That handbook stated management plans would be created and then any “gather plan” would tier from the planning document (a pretty standard process for all activities on public lands). A few Herd Management Area Plans (HMAP) were begun. By the late 80’s these were abandoned, and “gather plans” took the place of “management plans.”

When you see “comment on an EA” mailers go out from organizations, that is part of the NEPA process. The BLM will decide what they are going to do and then craft a document that includes “alternatives and analysis” and is then required to allow for stakeholder input. (We walk you through the comment process on the recent Calico Complex EA here) 

In the vast majority of instances the public is not allowed to comment on actual management (allocations of forage, genetics, range improvements, etc.) and you are limited to commenting on a “gather plan,” and not a management plan. (more on Herd Management Area Plans here)

When a frustrated public states “Wild horses and burros are just removed to suit other interests,” it is not just rhetoric, the paperwork holds that up as fact. When you see a “gather plan EA” you will see specific management planning documents the “gather plan” will comply with for livestock, sage grouse, etc. When you see a livestock permit or mining EIS you do not see a wild horse or burro HMAP that they must comply with (in other words, they just give away the resources the horses and burros need to survive to industry and simply state “the horses or burros will figure out how to survive the impact.”)

Once an EA (gather plan EA) is finalized, if it survives any legal appeal or challenge, it is now set to make it to the roundup schedule. Since around 2009 the BLM has been calling these documents “ten year gather plans.” Under NEPA if the physical environment changes significantly, and NEPA document must be revised prior to being implemented. In practice we can see extreme changes in the physical environment since an EA was approved, but the agency claims it does not have to do any revisions to existing planning prior to getting the area onto the removal schedule. (One example: Fish Creek)

When you see an EA approved, it does not automatically make a roundup schedule. Districts begin to compete for the funding that is distributed based on the “needs” each state office submits to the DC office.

Once the Appropriations bill (spending) is approved, the local level politics begin to get areas onto the removal schedule. Federal land managers will state the the schedule prioritizes a “thriving natural ecological balance” and areas that are in the most danger of “overpopulation.” That statement is a fiction. The removal schedule prioritizes politics and the needs of the most powerful industrial interests (livestock and mining). As an example: BLM will ignore certain areas until they reach a crisis because there are now powerful permittees in the area, yet place certain areas on the schedule again and again because of politics (one example: Triple B contains permittees that sit on state legislatures, the livestock association and Public Lands Council. Triple B was hit again and again and we expect it back on the schedule after “backdoor deals” give the permittee more fences.)

It can take days, or years, to see an approved EA make a schedule. If the EA has a strong political factor, like the spay EA for the Confusion HMA, the operation can make the schedule faster than a NEPA appeal period can expire.

The remainder of the 2021 schedule (ends in October). You can see a copy of the most recent schedule here: Proposed and Ongoing Gathers FY 2021 Wild Horse and Burro Removals as of May 7, 2021

The Owyhee complex in NV will get hit again, hard, this September. If you do the math from the last several operations, this roundup targets about 90% of the horses left on the range after the the 2018 operation pushed the herd to less than 600 wild horses on over 1.3 million acres. A lot has changes n this complex including new livestock projects (fencing, water, reseeding) and extractive industry expansion. All of this has been run under an outdated 2012 EA (it should be noted that none of the HMAs in the complex have an HMAP).

click image to download printable postcard

Owyhee was also pivotal in the fight to gain the first humane handling policy for wild horses and burros since the Act was passed (the image above is from Owyhee). The court order we gained at Owyhee (the third against abuse) created a massive thrust that led to the inclusion of a humane handling policy into the NEPA documents for gather plans. (That policy has not been reviewed or amended since 2016. You can help change that by downloading the postcard and putting it in the mail.)

Let that sink in a minute. The agencies tasked with humane management of wild horses and burros by Congress, never even created a humane handling policy until relentless legal action forced it.

When BLM states they “manage” wild horses and burros remember they have no actual management plans (in the vast majority of HMAs), just as they had no humane handling policy, and run everything off removal plans.

Removing wild horses (and burros) to satisfy the desires of other interests has been around since the first days of the wild horse and burro program. The claiming period allowed mustanging to continue and cleared vast acreage of horses. The first roundup was all about the cows and the local resentment that the capture and sale of wild horses to slaughter was being prohibited.

The same factors that drove removals in the1970’s are the same factors that drive the program today. The roundup schedule is born of politics, not management.


You can help. Our action page updates frequently. Today there are four fast actions you can take. The first is to pass the SAFE Act to put an end to slaughter of US horses (wild and domestic). The second action is to help us push a hearing on the wild horse and burro program in Congress. The third is about the upcoming spending bill debate. The final action is to help us gain revision of the CAWP protocol.

Click HERE. 


Our teams are busy. Our roundup team is gearing up team. We are monitoring drought conditions. Our legal team is busy juggling multiple actions with more to come.

Help keep us in the fight. 

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Categories: Wild Horse Education