Bob Ball: BLM follows the law governing wild horses in Utah

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A helicopter rounds up wild horses in the Onaqui Herd Management Area wild horse gather on Wednesday, July 14, 2021.

I write in response to the Priscilla Feral commentary regarding wild horses.

Contrary to her argument that “this rogue agency … has obliterated the Wild Horse and Burro Act,” federal courts provide oversight for Bureau of Land Management’s actions and have largely found that the BLM is complying with the act. If court challenges had found otherwise, the two gathers of wild horses she referenced would not occur. Feral overlooks the fact that the BLM must also comply with the Taylor Grazing Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, etc.

Much is made of the fact that many more cattle and sheep are authorized to graze on unidentified BLM grazing allotments than the horses authorized in the two herd management areas (HMAs). No meaningful comparison is possible, as the acreages where these “whopping” numbers of livestock graze are omitted. Perhaps these areas contain whopping acreages? Also pertinent is the productivity of these acres.

In comparing wild horses numbers with permitted livestock numbers other significant issues need consideration, all unmentioned in Feral’s commentary:

1.) What is the livestock grazing season in these allotments? Wild horses graze yearlong in their HMAs, with repeated opportunities to graze and then re-graze individual desirable forage plants. Livestock are likely grazed in a particular allotment only part of the year. Cattle might be rotated between multiple pastures within a single allotment, providing opportunity for undisturbed regrowth, reproduction and recovery of desirable forage plants. Some livestock allotments or pastures within allotments may only be grazed when forage plants are not actively growing, or for brief periods of time, with desirable plants less subject to injury from grazing. This opportunity for recovery is eliminated with year round grazing in wild horse HMAs.

2.) If the BLM-permitted sheep Feral mentions are grazed in the winter in areas where they can use snow for their sole water source (a common practice with sheep, not generally feasible for cattle or horses) and browse sagebrush, they may improve grass production for horses by decreasing the dominance of sagebrush. With snow, sheep need not trail back and forth repeatedly to a water source, which would degrade areas near water and increases soil compaction. The presence of a herder allows sheep to be more evenly distributed and moved every few days. No pasture fences are needed to obtain this benefit. There is less dietary overlap between sheep and horses. Winter sheep use is far more compatible with wild horse grazing than summer cattle use.

3.) Unexamined is whether the unidentified allotments or the two HMAs contain unfenced state or private lands. Non-federal lands are often intermingled with BLM administered public lands. Due at least equal consideration is the common circumstance where developed water sources (whether located on private, state or public lands) used by wild horses are entirely or partially paid for and maintained by grazing permittees. The statement that wild horses “dig more than six feet to reach groundwater” is absurd.

Anthropomorphizing horse emotions (“Old Man … suffering … from broken bonds with family and friends”) as opposed to a realistic evaluation of the resources the BLM is responsible for is unproductive. BLM is responsible for maintaining the sustainability and health of each wild horse herd as whole, this includes not degrading the health and productivity of the rangelands the herds rely on.

The incontrovertible bottom line is that none of these HMAs can support an infinite number of horses without long-term damage to the health and productivity of the lands. If the objective is a substantial reapportionment of public land resources between wild horses and permitted livestock, amendments to the Wild Horse and Burro Act and the Taylor Grazing Act are needed.

For the most part, the courts have approved of the way the BLM is implementing the laws they are currently bound by.

Bob Ball

Bob Ball, Dolores, Colo., retired from the Bureau of Land Management after 30 years with the agency.