Charlotte Roe: Protect public lands and the wild Onaqui horses

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune Horses from the Onaqui wild horse herd, about 60 miles southwest of Tooele, near Simpson Springs, Thursday, June 5, 2014.

In the Skull Valley, in Utah’s West Desert, a band of wild horses grazes peacefully. The sand and mountains echo their many colors. Fans of the Onaqui wild horses come from afar to photograph them, to study their intricate social bonds. Through the Wild Horses of America Foundation, volunteers dart selected wild mares with birth control vaccines and work to protect their standing on the land.

By law, the Onaqui horses are a protected wildlife species, an important cultural resource, an integral part of the ecosystem. They bring tourist dollars to remote Tooele County.

On Sept. 11, the Bureau of Land Management is to start a series of roundups that will shatter mustang families and sever their wild roots. With an initial capture target of 200, BLM aims to remove and warehouse three-quarters of the herd now estimated at 450 animals. This would eventually leave 121 horses — roughly an average of 1,000 acres per mustang — while several thousand cattle continue grazing in the crucial months for range health.

The bold fiction of overpopulation spurs the removals. The BLM cites an Appropriate Management Level (AML) for the Onaqui herd — between 121 and 210 horses — so it can paint the majority of the free-roaming herd as “excess.”

In its 2013 study, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) found that AMLs are arbitrary, inflexible and lack scientific foundation. Yet the flawed measurements remain.

A second unfounded claim is that wild horses hurt sage grouse habitat. This distracts attention from the leading causes of rangeland degradation: livestock grazing and other invasive commercial activities that spur global warming. The bulk of the Onaqui herd doesn’t intersect sage grouse territory. While pointing a crooked finger at wild horses, the administration is undermining key safeguards and habitat that would facilitate these keystone birds’s recovery.

The BLM requested $50 million from Congress for a management plan to reduce overall wild horse and burro populations to a national AML of 26,710, a level considered so dangerously low that Congress unanimously passed the 1971 Wild Free-Ranging Horses and Burros Act to prevent these animals from “fast disappearing from the Western landscape.”

The disappearance plan was developed by Utah Rep. Chris Stewart and a lobbying coalition headed by the National Cattlemen’s Association. The proposal would nearly triple the wild horses and burros incarcerated in holding, with no fiscal provision for their upkeep. It would weaken herds genetically. It would skew sex ratios leading to heightened aggression and a crashing of remnant populations. It would enable the BLM to sterilize wild mares through discredited, highly risky colpotomy surgeries that destroy free-ranging behavior.

Why do the lives of these heritage animals matter? Like the sage grouse, wild equids are deeply tied to the struggle against industrializing America’s public lands. The Wild Horse Act protected wild free-roaming horses and burros as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West” that “contribute to the diversity of life forms” and “enrich the lives of the American people.”

Through decades of mismanagement, misleading information and land grabs, this legal mandate has been subverted to favor special interests supporting subsidized livestock grazing and extractive industries. In 1971, wild equids were protected on over 53 million acres. The BLM and U.S. Forest Service have arbitrarily cut away 41 percent of that acreage.

Reforms supported by 110 equine advocate and animal welfare groups include safe, humane techniques of population management, adjusting unfair forage allotments, restoring wild equid habitat, a reexamination of AMLs and other science-based solutions. Instead, the BLM is asking Congress to put a broken management system on steroids. Without debate, the House of Representatives approved $6 million toward the proposed $50 million management plan. The Senate and then a Senate-House conference will next consider this appropriations request.

Please tell your lawmakers to send the BLM’s wild horse extinction plan back to the drawing board. We can choose: a barren landscape — or standing up for public lands and the wild lives that belong there.

Charlotte Roe, Berthoud, Colo., is a wild horse and burro guardian, a policy advisor for In Defense of Animals and collaborates with numerous organizations to give voice to wild equids.