Wild Horse Education

Drought (not too early to start talking)

Onaqui wild horses grabbing a drink in summer 2022 from a catchment.

Drought. Playing fast and loose with the word “drought” is driving wild horse and burro roundups and removals, while new water sources are being created to expand livestock’s range, and mining and so-called “green energy” are being approved hand over fist.

It might seem a bit odd to you that we are talking about “drought” as many of us are buried in snow or experiencing heavy rains.   After you shovel yourself out of the snow, dry off from torrential rain, grab a warm cup of your favorite beverage and read a bit about the contradictions so you are ready to address the “drought game.”  The games have already begun as BLM prioritizes Herd Management Areas (HMAs) for removals and, at the same time, moves to approve livestock grazing and mining. 

Throughout (recent) history drought has literally become a propaganda nightmare for wild horses. We are not saying drought is not real, but rather how it is spun by land managers and the media does not accurately represent reality. Media will show pictures of horses in distress on state or tribal lands and then talk about Bureau of Land Management (BLM) helicopter roundups; these two subjects are not related. They will also do things like describe a monsoonal rain and the way water runs and floods and claim a wild horse “drought emergency removal” is justified because “the ground is not absorbing the water.”  (An editorial from WHE in 2018 on the subject)

Wild horses traveling miles from home range where an ATV trail has taken over the area of a water source (and the others have been fenced off for “sage grouse protection”) and horses must navigate miles of barbed wire to find a break in the fence, get a drink and then travel back to home range. When they leave to get water they are considered “off HMA.” BLM failed to protect water in the HMA.

When it comes to wild horses and burros there is always a “take away” discussion going on. Take away critical water and forage areas and give them to someone else. Then, take the wild horses and burros away and stick them in holding (and they can face injury or death during capture, illness in holding and then all of the loopholes that land them in a killpen). Whatever manmade hardship the wild horse or burro faces can be made harder as drought and climate change increase. 

This image from the Owyhee roundup clearly demonstrates the “rock and a hard place” our wild horses are caught in. We see this scene repeat from place to place at every single roundup.

What we need to start seeing is some of what has been taken, given back. Barbed wire has to come down (not more approved for “rotational grazing.” Waters need to be repaired and created to distribute populations throughout HMAs as mining cuts migratory routes. Limits on industry inside HMAs need to be set… there is already too much.

In 2023, these are things we will be talking about (again) and creating action items for you as WHE continue to expand our team work in these areas. 

Below: navigating ranges strewn with barbed wire are also tragedies in the making when it comes to roundups. If our observer (the only one onsite) was not there, could this have turned fatal? 

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Many people believe the accelerated removals (since 2018) are due to drought, they aren’t. The primary driver was a corporate lobby agreement. The plan began as “Ten Years to AML” in 2016 and had a name change in 2018 when livestock signed on openly to “Path Forward.”

Many of you remember what happened when BLM tried to get the cows out of Bunkerville, restrict livestock during the first years of the prolonged drought and the Grass March Sprung up, trespass livestock on public lands increased. So instead of cracking down, BLM caved. It is pretty easy to see that the “bullies” (outside and inside) BLM rule how reality is created.

It appears that it was much easier to just spend a lot of taxpayer money to figure out how to lose more taxpayer money bolstering the livestock industry (it is estimated that 1 billion dollars was lost to public lands livestock in one decade).  BLM came up with things like “Outcome-based grazing” (that essentially lets the livestock operator say that some area has grass and move his livestock over to the area, even if it would be prohibited under the old permit terms). We see plans to open up allotments to permittees that have run in trespass for years and, at the exact same time, plans to remove wild horses that have used the area for seasonal migration since before the 1971 Act passed (one current example is Stone Cabin).


Map above comparing December of 2021 to 2022 above is from the US Drought Monitor.

When BLM crafts a statement or planning document citing drought for a wild horse or burro removal they will often use a map from the Drought Monitor without any context. Drought is a fact of life in the arid West. At least 3 years of every decade are drought-stricken.

This makes most of the West not really suitable for a domestic livestock production operation to remain consistent from year-to-year, decade-to-decade, or to be considered as a sustained operation for generations to come. It is simply illogical, but politically important since inception after the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 pushed by the dust bowl and landowners to get rid of “free-grazers” and take control of public lands grazing. (If you do not know what a “free-grazer” is, you can watch the movie “Open Range” on one of the days you are shut in due to bad weather. Basically, they were people that did not own any land in an area but drove livestock across public lands to feed on the way to a railway station for sale.)

Question: If areas on the drought map above change again due to precipitation (illustrated below), but BLM used the drought in a removal plan, will an approved Environmental Assessment (EA) approving removals be invalidated? 

Map showing western water equivalents post-New Year’s storms. These numbers have not been included in the drought monitor yet. 

If the drought monitor is used to say “no forage is available and wild horses will starve to death,” how can they keep putting cows on the very same range? Good question.

Livestock permits nationwide (from BLM): The BLM administers nearly 18,000 permits and leases held by ranchers who graze their livestock, mostly cattle and sheep, at least part of the year on more than 21,000 allotments. Permits and leases generally cover a 10-year period…

One state: BLM NV manages 48 million acres. On 43 million of those acres, BLM permits 668 grazing authorizations on 797 grazing allotments. That translates to 2 million Animal Unit Months (AUM) for livestock. An AUM is the amount of forage a cow/calf pair, one horse, or five sheep or goats needs for a month that was set in 1978, before the increase in size of today’s domestic livestock. In the same state, wild horses and burros are allotted 153,732 AUMs; or 7.6% the amount allocated to cows and sheep.

You will also hear “but cows are not out all year!” Neither are locusts that can destroy forage for every other living thing in days. However, there is no list of year-round permits. You have to start looking at each permit. When you do take the time to start digging, what you find starts to demonstrate that about a third of livestock permits are year-round, another third are 9 months or longer. 

In 2023, we will present more material on the fictions surrounding the “horses will starve, but we can keep permitting 93% more cattle on the range to get fat for market.”

BLM will also use a different map to do livestock permitting and not just the drought monitor used for wild horse removals; they use the vegetative drought response index.

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Above is the current index.

We suggest you go play with the date range on the index website: put in spring dates and you see improvement; the summer a downward spiral is usually seen.

It is important to note that many livestock permits begin (or continue to run) during the growing season (spring) when these maps are used to justify the flood of livestock hitting western landscapes like locusts.

Is it a drought, or too many cows? Is it drought, or waters fenced off and habitat fragmented for mining and livestock? 

Public lands grazing is not a simple process to follow. Degradation from livestock is easy for anyone visiting public lands to see or to find in a fast Google search. 

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) released another scathing review of the federal livestock grazing program in 2022 that shows more than half fail rangeland health standards and 27% have not even been assessed (many of these include wild horses that are being scapegoated without any assessment).

In 2023, BLM is expected to release new rules and regulations to allow for more flexibility (control) of public lands by livestock. (more HERE) When these are released for public input, we will let you know.

Habitat loss and fragmentation should be the number 1 item on the list for anyone advocating for any wild thing in 2023. The same is true for our wild horses and burros.

There was a time when media began to cover the subject of wild horses as part of the story of the loss of all of our public lands; how profit-driven habitat fragmentation was destroying all of our wild places, including resources needed for wild horses and burros.

What happened? Why are news stories the last few years focused on overpopulation and how we need new tools to address a fictional tale that our rangelands are overrun by wild horses? You can take the cause back to the same corporate agreement mentioned earlier in this article and the massive money behind public relations, media outreach and lobbying.

In 2023, it will be the job of every advocate to get context, facts and core issues into the mainstream dialogue. Everyone must make habitat loss the first thing you talk about to lawmakers and media. Over 95% of wild horse and burro Herd Management Areas (HMA) do not even have a specific management plan that defines their critical habitat! All we have are population control plans that are based on population levels set in agreements with livestock and counties back in the 70s and 80s. All of that needs to be discussed before any new tool is researched or developed to control population growth. If we keep saying there is an
overpopulation of wild horses and making fertility control, or PZP the first line item, we will see habitat shrink and token numbers of wild horses and burros struggling to survive in an industrial wasteland.

Habitat loss and fragmentation is the core problem on public lands and in wild horse country.

Habitat restoration and limits on private profit industry is the answer. (The answer is not “how do we create a new tool to limit wild horse populations to levels set in agreements with livestock, not science.” The only time we should start talking about limiting population growth is after every conversation has been had to protect habitat and maintain a sustainable herd into the future.)

Advocacy has a big job in 2023. One of the first things we need to do is reject this notion that drought can cause a horse to starve while private profiteers increase the amount of forage and water they consume in areas designated for the protection of wild horses and burros. If the fences were removed, the waters reestablished, industry limited, wild horses would be just fine.

Onward into 2023.

WHE resource page: WHE reports and investigations, as well as BLM resource pages, can be found by clicking this text. 

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Categories: Wild Horse Education