Report: BLM turns a blind eye to cattle grazing impacts, blames wild horses

Are the West’s wild horses getting the blame for range degradation caused by livestock?

(Tribune file photo by Rick Egan) Wild horses from Utah's Onaqui herd gather around Simpson Springs, on Wednesday, July 14, 2021. A new report alleges the BLM in Utah ignores the impacts of livestock grazing, while blaming poor range health on wild horses.

The Bureau of Land Management chronically underreports the extent of damage to public rangelands caused by livestock grazing in Utah in apparent defiance of policies that mandate regular rangeland health assessments, according to an analysis of federal data.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) on Monday released a report that highlights the BLM’s eagerness to blame wild horses for habitat degradation in western Utah, while systematically ignoring the larger role of cattle, which far outnumber wild horses.

The group’s analysis of BLM rangeland health data, obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, concluded livestock grazing was a significant cause of habitat degradation on a majority of lands where the BLM and the U.S. Geological Survey have publicly implicated wild horses in declines of sage grouse habitat.

“USGS and BLM have put on scientific blinders when it comes to public lands grazing,” said Kirsten Stade, PEER’s special projects manager. “While wild horses do have impacts of their own, coherent landscape and recovery planning require a hard look at the millions of cows foraging increasingly stressed rangelands.”

A recent USGS study found that by 2034 sage grouse numbers could drop by upward of 70% if wild horse populations continue their unbridled growth at current rates.

Stade noted that cattle outnumber wild horses on the West’s public lands 30 to 1. Within the BLM’s designated wild horse “herd management areas,” or HMAs, the ratio is about 9 to 1, depending on the time of year.

A BLM spokeswoman was not able to offer comment by press time.

Over the past two years, the BLM has rounded up about a third of the horses roaming freely in Utah, putting them up for adoption or incarcerating them for life in contract corrals and pastures, courtesy of U.S. taxpayers. To justify the roundups, the agency often cited the dire conditions of drought-depleted rangelands.

Last year, the BLM removed 1,824 horses from five HMAs and another 525 this year, most of those from the beloved Onaqui herd that roam around the Onaqui Mountains about 60 miles southwest of Salt Lake City. According to the BLM’s latest count, about 4,121 wild horses and burros inhabit Utah’s 19 herd management areas totaling 2.5 million acres.

Most of these HMAs are on lands overseen by the BLM’s Fillmore field office, which has sponsored five horse roundups since 2020.

In most instances, the BLM claimed excessive horse numbers were damaging rangelands. The BLM’s former acting director William Perry Pendley, who served during the last two years of the Trump administration and oversaw a dramatic increase in roundups, characterized wild horses as an “existential threat” to rangeland health — even though free-roaming horses are protected under federal law.

Environmentalists and horse advocates dispute Pendley’s assertions since cattle have such a larger presence on these lands than horses.

Under BLM policies, the agency is to conduct periodic rangeland health assessments on the thousands of public land grazing allotments, according to Peter Lattin, a former BLM contractor that PEER hired to analyze the data. These assessments are done to determine a rangelands’ watershed functionality, nutrient cycling, water quality and habitat quality, and to identify the reasons why a range may be substandard.

Based on a review of BLM’s own records, PEER said 40 million acres of federal lands fail to meet standards for water, vegetation, soils and ability to support wildlife because of overgrazing. PEER stitched the data into one big data set and organized it into a map posted online.

“BLM’s handling of information about unsustainable livestock practices has been the antithesis of sound science,” PEER executive director Tim Whitehouse wrote in a letter Monday to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. The agency consistently excludes the consideration of livestock grazing as a possible reason why landscapes have changed across six ecoregions in the West, he alleged.

“We have been able to find no evidence that BLM has conducted any such analysis of its own, however, or even reviewed the data, or, most importantly, used it to guide land management decision-making,” Whitehouse’s letter continued. “While wild horses certainly impact sage grouse habitat, to focus conservation efforts for this habitat on addressing impacts made by thousands of wild horses, while ignoring troves of data on the impacts from millions of cattle, undermines your efforts to create a culture of scientific integrity at DOI.”

Reports generated by BLM’s Fillmore office, which administers most of Utah’s horse management areas, paint a suspiciously rosy picture of rangeland health, according to the PEER analysis. BLM data indicates that nearly all rangelands meet standards in Beaver and Millard counties, but just across the Nevada state line the rangelands do not meet standards, according to Lattin.

Utah lands are probably not in better shape, he said. A more likely explanation is the Utah field office is not doing its job since it is obvious the rangelands in these counties are not in good health and livestock grazing is having an impact, Lattin argues.

“The [Fillmore] office reports that just 1% of the allotments by acreage fail to meet standards due to grazing, in an ecoregion with a livestock failure rate of 49%,” he said.

The analysis points to a double standard when it comes to assessing the impacts of foraging ungulates: Wild horses and burros get blamed when rangelands suffer, while domestic livestock get a pass.

The most controversial Utah roundup in years targeted the Onaqui herd, which is overseen by the BLM’s Salt Lake field office. That sprawling HMA overlaps 10 grazing allotments, four of which the BLM data indicate are failing to meet standards for rangeland health.

“One of these identifies livestock, as well as wild horses, as a cause for this failure, but its categorization of the allotment’s health deliberately obscures the livestock impact and attributes all the damage to factors other than livestock,” Stade wrote in an email.

“Given its pattern of denying grazing impacts, it is hard to take Interior’s pledge to be guided by the best science seriously,” added Stade, pointing to worsening drought conditions throughout the West. “Despite the unmistakable red flags, Interior is not even studying, let alone planning, any widespread, programmatic changes in livestock stocking rates or management to prevent further sage grouse decline.”

Horse advocates cited the new report to renew their insistence the BLM should jettison its reliance on costly helicopter horse roundups in favor of fertility control for keeping horse numbers in check.

“The BLM’s bias against wild horses and its continued failure to address the threat of livestock to Western public lands is harming wildlife and the environment,” said Suzanne Roy, executive director of the American Wild Horse Campaign. “We implore Secretary Haaland to rein in the mismanaged agency and to stop scapegoating the very animal it is charged to protect, wild horses. In order to do that, the BLM cannot continue to ignore its own scientific findings on the adverse impacts of public lands livestock grazing.”

In a Sept. 9 letter to Haaland, the Sierra Club called on the Interior secretary to eliminate livestock grazing in herd management areas, tying such a move to accomplishing the goals of President Joe Biden’s “30 by 30″ conservation initiative.

“Addressing livestock-induced-ecological problems within BLM Herd Management Areas would potentially restore the ability of these lands to sequester carbon, help climate stabilization efforts, improve riparian conditions and water quality and also address biodiversity issues,” wrote Athan Manuel, who heads Sierra Club’s lands protection program.