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Regs and Planning (Wild Week, part 2)

We published a piece that prefaced this next piece for Wild Week: a bit of history, the formation of the framework of advocacy for wild horses on our public lands. Advocacy for the wild, begins in the wild.  You can access it HERE.

Our readers represent a broad spectrum of advocates: beginners to those that have participated for decades. We have been receiving a lot of questions that need to be addressed through a “law, policy and process” context  as the media seems to be recycling the same old superficial rhetoric. We share your frustration.

We hope this series of articles will provide info that can be helpful to gain an understanding of how the framework has been manipulated to favor private profiteering over preservation of public resources. A deeper understanding can help you to determine what you would like to see change, what to promote, and to communicate to your lawmakers your position.

Stone Cabin

Many of you are actively crafting public comment on active Gather Environmental Assessment (EAs) like the one open for Stone Cabin. These comment period are part of the NEPA process; the series of steps BLM must take to define, evaluate and engage stakeholders before making public lands decisions. Remember the word before the type of analysis document defines the action; in the case of Stone Cabin the action analyzed is a “Gather Plan” and the process is through an EA.

In recent years the word term “EA” is being incorrectly used to express a “management plan.” These ten-year EA’s are ten-year Gather Plans, not management plans.

We hope the following helps as you craft comments. We will have additional articles for you later this week specifically on the open “comment periods.” But the following (and the preceding piece) will provide background and, hopefully, assist you in your advocacy.

Today we will talk about a bit of the framework.

Why is wild horse and burro habitat managed primarily for rapidly expanding industry? Everything that happens on public lands has a site-specific management plan. Plans for everything proposed on public lands, from massive mining all the way down to things like cutting Christmas trees, go through a public planning process that addresses the environmental impact of the action; how will the proposed action impact existing industry, recreation, cultural resources and environmental resources.

When it comes to wild horses and burros, a public resource, BLM treats any planning as if it is simply a part of a system to accommodate industry. Instead of treating wild horses and burros as a resource they need to protect, BLM simply creates population growth suppression (remove/fertility control) operations and does absolutely nothing to protect habitat for wild horse and burro use or herd integrity. In fact, BLM continues to call the numbers Congress found “fast-disappearing” in 1971 when the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act was passed “appropriate,” instead of ever setting a species recovery number.

Every action taken by any federal agency begins with a law. Then regulations are created to define the mandates of law and jurisdiction. The agency that is tasked with jurisdiction creates handbooks and internal policy to comply with regulations to carry out the law.

For wild horses and burros the law stated that wild horses and burros were to be managed humanely and protected on the range. The Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) defined that mandate and established jurisdiction for these mandates to be carried out on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and United States Forest Service (USFS) lands.

For reference: You can find the original 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burro Act and the current amended version (after other bills were passed) by clicking HERE.

Some relevant language that exists in the regulations that we feel we should include in this essay:

§ 4700.0-2 Objectives.

The objectives of these regulations are management of wild horses and burros as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands under the principle of multiple use; protection of wild horses and burros from unauthorized capture, branding, harassment or death; and humane care and treatment of wild horses and burros.

§ 4700.0-6 Policy.

(a) Wild horses and burros shall be managed as self-sustaining populations of healthy animals in balance with other uses and the productive capacity of their habitat.

(b) Wild horses and burros shall be considered comparably with other resource values in the formulation of land use plans.

(c) Management activities affecting wild horses and burros shall be undertaken with the goal of maintaining free-roaming behavior.

§ 4710.3-1 Herd management areas.

Herd management areas shall be established for the maintenance of wild horse and burro herds. In delineating each herd management area, the authorized officer shall consider the appropriate management level for the herd, the habitat requirements of the animals, the relationships with other uses of the public and adjacent private lands, and the constraints contained in § 4710.4. The authorized officer shall prepare a herd management area plan, which may cover one or more herd management areas.

§ 4710.3-2 Wild horse and burro ranges.

Herd management areas may also be designated as wild horse or burro ranges to be managed principally, but not necessarily exclusively, for wild horse or burro herds.

§ 4710.5 Closure to livestock grazing.

(a) If necessary to provide habitat for wild horses or burros, to implement herd management actions, or to protect wild horses or burros, to implement herd management actions, or to protect wild horses or burros from disease, harassment or injury, the authorized officer may close appropriate areas of the public lands to grazing use by all or a particular kind of livestock.

When we look at the language of regulations it is understandable that under comparison with the reality observed, serious questions arise. When you start to look deeper it becomes pretty obvious that BLM has never taken their responsibility to protect and manage wild horses and burros seriously.

Examples of questions we get in our inbox:

If there is a drought or grazing land is damaged by fire, why isn’t domestic livestock removed from HMAs? If water tables are dropping due to climate change, why is BLM allowed to approve expansion of extremely water dependent mining in an HMA? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that more barbed wire fencing for the new grazing schemes (rotational grazing, etc.) interferes with free-roaming behavior for wild horses (and every other large grazing animal), why is BLM approving more and more fencing?

Shouldn’t there be some type of document where BLM analyzes the things outlined in the CFRs for wild horse and burro management where the public can give input or comment to protect wild horses and burros? Where can science begin to replace the slapdash boundary lines and politically influenced stocking numbers from the 70s and 80s? Where does new range data, science and environmental priorities come into play to protect the herd and habitat when all BLM creates are ten-year “population growth suppression” plans; the Gather Environmental Assessment?

Management objectives and options were intended to be addressed in the Herd Management Area Plan (HMAP).

How many times have you seen someone (perhaps you?) comment on a Gather-EA that BLM did not include analysis on habitat restoration, habitat protection, removal of livestock, changes to boundary lines or the numbers of wild horses or burros allowed on the range? The response is always “not appropriate” in this process. Yet, the response to the comment never notes which process those comments would be considered “appropriate.”

In response to media, BLM will often vaguely suggest that something called a Resource Management Plan (RMP) or Land Use Plan (LUP) is a wild horse/burro management plan. An RMP is intended to last for 10-15 years before being revised and serves as an overview to identify and address current and expected uses within a district. After an RMP is established individual site-specific planning still occurs: the livestock grazing plan and permit, a site specific development plan for a mine, off-road racing, Christmas tree cutting, etc. Planning is done through the NEPA process; usually through an Environmental Assessment (EA) or the more extensive Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

With wild horses and burros we do not get a site-specific management plan that identifies and analyzes the specific items noted in the CFRs. A management plan that would outline habitat requirements (that would help protect that habitat from loss through fencing, roads or a massive mine), protect wild horses/burros if habitat shrinks due to natural change (fire, drought) in order to require removal of domestic livestock, identify special genetic concerns, etc., etc., etc.

All BLM crafts for wild horses/burros are plans to remove/reduce populations. A Gather-EA can have different titles like “Population Control Management Plan” and not simply “Gather.” But the action analyzed is not management (according to all the parameters of the CFR), just some form of remove/fertility control.

A Land Use Plan is NOT the equivalent of a site-specific management plan. A Gather-EA is not a site-specific management plan. No matter how often BLM claims they “manage,” there is no actual paperwork to back up that claim. 

BLM will consistently assert in Reports to Congress that the HMAP is a vital part of the process; even in the 2020 Plan (that Congress keeps funding) BLM states the importance of that planning and admits their neglect.

Even though the “plan” Congress has been funding includes addressing the lack of HMAPs, BLM has not taken a single step to address that neglect. Instead the agency has amped removals to historic levels, overcrowded facilities (where they have approved the vast majority to be housed off-limits to any public viewing), increased grants for all kinds of population growth suppression from more experimental sterilization substances and techniques to designating funding for new grants for darting teams (that includes funding for application and administrative fees). BLM has even created the vernacular “preferred partner” as they create exclusive agreements.  Every big corporate interest calls some part of this plan a “success” as the status quo runs full steam and the wild horse and their habitat is again “fast disappearing.”

But what about actual management to protect the wild horse?

We believe BLM has simply buried actual management plans under so many layers of bureaucratic jargon for so long that the records appear to set a valid precedent. BLM also tends to hide behind the word “discretion.” Much of the language in the CFRs will use the word “may,” implying that BLM has a choice to carry out a provision. But much of the critical language uses the word “shall,” a non-discretionary mandate. (See CFRs above.)

BLM employees have claimed “management planning” (HMAP) cannot be done until they get to the numbers that resemble those on-range during the passage of the Act. Yet at the same time claiming that the land use plans and gather plans are the equivalent of HMAPs.

We are doing all we can to rectify this outrageous reality. This issue is now in both federal and land use courts (WHE is involved in 2 federal court actions and 5 land use court appeals).

What can you do?

Many of you participate in comment periods for wild horse and burro gather plans and have begun asking for HMAP-EAs prior to any removal. You can also get on a mailing list for a herd you care about by contacting the district office that manages that herd. You can request to receive all notifications for any proposed action that overlaps an HMA. You can start commenting on livestock, mining, recreation, etc. noting that without an HMAP, impacts to wild horses or burros cannot be appropriately evaluated or mitigated.

BLM might ignore or minimize your comment, but the comments themselves will begin to demonstrate that the public is tired of BLM putting actual management planning off for 40 years.

You can also begin to demand that Congress forbid funding to be used for population growth suppression (roundups/fertility control) until BLM crafts an overdue management plan (HMAP) for a herd. You can push for a specific line item that designates funding for management planning. Point out that even though BLM includes the HMAP process in the request for funding, they have not even begun to craft/update this critical NEPA document. BLM needs a good “kick.”

You can utilize some of the information in these articles (and others you read from multiple sources) and craft a “Letter to the Editor” or response OpEds to articles you read that create your frustration.

Together we can educate the media, lawmakers and the courts to bring about the change so desperately needed and long overdue. 


The stunning photography that illustrates this article was provided by Lynn Walleen. Lynn does sell prints of her work and she can be contacted through her Facebook page.

These images are all from Wyoming. Lynn recently went to scout out the Red Desert Complex and the “checkerboard” complex near Rock Springs. Herds in Wyoming have been minimized to allow private industry to expand. Management planning for wild horses has been neglected and dealt away under an agreement (settlement) with a grazing association where “numbers” are the only thing used to determine removal. The law and CFRs are clear that numbers alone do not justify removals.

We expect Wyoming herds to be back on the BLM roundup schedule once funding for the new fiscal year is released (we expect a continuing resolution that will maintain the same language and funding level as last years budget). The fiscal year 2023 begins Oct. 1.


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