Scott Beckstead: Don’t believe BLM’s gaslighting about the Onaqui herd of wild horses

Agency promotes a myth about horses starving as an excuse for removing them from public rangeland.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Wild horses from the Onaqui wild horse herd gather around Simpson Springs, on Wednesday, July 14, 2021.

When someone repeats an obviously false statement often enough, people start believing it despite proof to the contrary. The statement takes on a life of its own, and soon people start questioning their own observations. It may even become popular to repeat the false trope, and eventually the misinformation gains momentum and credibility.

It’s called “gaslighting,” and it has infected public discourse over many topics of public concern. Add to those topics the Bureau of Land Management’s wild horse program. The BLM hopes that by repeating the “wild horse overpopulation” myth often enough, Congress, the administration and the American public will accept the obvious cruelty of helicopter roundups under the mistaken belief that it’s necessary to protect the rangelands and save horses from starving.

The problem is, it’s working. To the delight of the livestock industry, Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland supports the roundups. Congress accepts the BLM’s statements at face value and forks over huge sums of money to continue the helicopter operations and mass incarcerations on private feedlots.

In July, the BLM clearly lied about starving horses and sparse forage in Utah to justify decimating the famed Onaqui herd with a mass roundup and removal, then quietly admitted the horses were in great shape only after the operation was well underway.

Even though advocacy groups published photographs in the days before the Onaqui roundup that showed the horses were healthy, well-nourished and feeding on abundant grass, the BLM refused to relent, and now the Onaqui Herd Management Area is largely cleared of horses and ready for thousands of commercial livestock to be turned out next spring.

The BLM’s gaslighting reached new lows in Colorado, where the agency used helicopters to remove nearly 80 percent of the beloved and iconic herd in the Sand Wash Basin. At first the BLM claimed the horses were victims of a drought and had to be removed to prevent them from dying of starvation and thirst. When monsoon rains filled the waterholes and prompted an eruption of grass and forage, the BLM changed its narrative, saying the roundup was necessary to prevent the horses from starving over the winter (something that has never happened in the Sand Wash Basin), and that the horses were destroying sage grouse habitat — even though the BLM knows sage grouse have never existed in substantial numbers in the area, and even though the state of Colorado continues to allow hunters to hunt and shoot the birds for sport.

By shifting its narrative to match the realities on the range, the BLM is able to keep perpetuating the “wild horse overpopulation” myth and keep people second-guessing themselves despite what they can see with their own eyes. The aim is simple: to sidestep public scrutiny while removing horses from federally mandated horse habitat for the sake of thousands upon thousands of cattle and sheep before someone in authority orders them to stop.

The BLM is intent on eliminating an American treasure — the wild horse — from the American landscape. It sees the overwhelming public opposition, but responds by saying with a straight face that these horrible operations are “humane” and that they really do “care for the horses.”

But what we can all see with our own eyes is that the BLM is engaged in the very acts of cruelty and persecution the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 was written to stop. And now environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, Western Watersheds Project and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, bolster our observations with their own evidence that the BLM omits essential — and damning — data about livestock grazing in its communications to the public about wild horses.

As the BLM prepares for the largest helicopter roundup of wild horses in its history — an operation that will remove 3,555 horses from their Wyoming rangeland home and consign them to captivity and possibly slaughter — believe what you’re seeing.

Don’t be misled by the BLM’s gaslighting. The wild horses are clearly being mistreated by the BLM. What we are seeing before our eyes is government cruelty being inflicted on federally-protected wild animals.

Scott Beckstead

Scott Beckstead, Sutherlin, Oregon, is campaigns director for Animal Wellness Action and an adjunct professor of law at Willamette University. He has bachelor’s degrees in pre-law and philosophy from Utah State University and a law degree from the University of Utah.