In environmental assessment documents, the BLM claims that the 620 wild horses that now live on these lands have inadequate forage and water and are trampling the landscape.
But Nevada wildlife ecologist Craig Downer characterizes the agency's plan as "drastic" and says it is slanted towards satisfying livestock, big game, mining and oil and gas interests without regard for the horses or for the environment.
In a June 27 letter to BLM Ely District Manager John Ruhs, Downer calls the agency's justification for removal of the wild horses "deceptive and untrue."
"You and your team, as public servants, are supposed to fairly represent diverse public interests on public lands, not just livestock, big game, mining and other extractive activities," Downer writes. "What you are proposing and your justification for such constitute an abandonment of duty. You intentionally target wild horses for elimination in order to clear the way for other more politically pushy interests."
The agency's environmental assessment of two of the 11 herd areas, Seaman and White River is typical of the agency's justifications for removing the wild horses.
The Seaman and White River herd areas are located about 80 miles southwest of Ely, in portions of Nye and Lincoln counties.
Wild horses are rounded up by helicopter in Nevada. (Photo by Richard H. Brown courtesy BLM)
Saying that the assessment "is tiered to the Ely Proposed Resource Management Plan/Final Environmental Impact Statement released in November 2007," the agency concludes, "Removal of all wild horses from the Seaman and White River HA's is needed at this time in order to implement this management direction and to prevent further damage to the range resulting from the current overpopulation."
But Downer calculates that the 11 wild horse herd areas cover a total of 1,386,992 acres, which are currently occupied by just 620 horses.
"This signifies 2,237.08 legal acres per remaining wild horse," he wrote in the letter to Ruhs. "Yet you still mean to tell me that in these vast areas wild horses are overpopulated and destroying the ecosystem?! I find this extremely hard to believe, especially given my knowledge of wild horse behavior and ecology as well as public lands politics."
The BLM claims that monitoring data collected during 2007, 2008, and 2009 shows that utilization by wild horses is "moderate to heavy."
"Trampling damage by wild horses is evident at most water developments and riparian areas. Heavy trailing by wild horses is evident throughout the HAs especially areas near water. Excess utilization and trampling is currently impacting range conditions and preventing recovery of key range ecological sites," the BLM environmental assessment states.
Monitoring also indicates wild horses move outside the herd areas in search of water, the BLM states.
Downer argues that livestock fences keep wild horses from accessing the available water, but he is not the only one who questions these findings and criticizes the BLM's plans to remove all the wild horses from these herd areas.
Reno physician Don Molde, M.D. today wrote a letter to Chris Mayer, supervisory rangeland management specialist in the Ely District's Egan Field Office, protesting the agency's plans to eliminate these horses.
Dr. Molde describes a drive he took across the White River herd area on July 5. "On my drive, the ground conditions were breathtakingly beautiful, with greenness, sprouting new vegetation, and lushness. Given what wild horses have to live with in Western Nevada, these conditions represented a remarkably comfortable-looking environment for wild horses which live in that Herd Area. I saw fewer than a dozen wild horses during the 30-mile drive, and the road contained very little in the way of horse droppings," he wrote.
"I note that the BLM claims an absence of water as a primary reason for horse removal. Yet, it appears that in the last 10 years, close to 700 horses were removed from the White River Herd Area, and the current census of animals is estimated at a very modest 168 animals. Clearly, there is water available for that Herd Area," wrote Molde.
Asking that Mayer reconsider the decision to remove the wild horses, Molde writes, "...there are lots of other unanswered questions as well in terms of future plans for livestock use in the Herd Area, wildlife usage (big game species populations, except for mule deer, are at all-time high levels), how much of the damage alleged to be by horses may actually be due to cattle use in the past..."
Downer, who authored the book "Wild Horses: Living Symbols of Freedom," is even more critical of the BLM's plans to remove all the wild horses in the nine other herd areas.
His letter to Ruhs states, "Your injustice toward the wild horses in the nine legal herd areas of the Caliente Wild Horse Complex (Meadow Valley Mountain, Blue Nose Peak, Delamar Mountain, Clover Mountains, Clove Creek, Applewhite, Mormon Mountain, Little Mountain and Miller Flat HAs) is even more egregious!"
"I'm sure you realize that with only 270 wild horses in this vast legal wild horse domain summing to 911,892 acres, there are 3,377.38 legal acres for every remaining wild horse!" Downer writes.
The BLM's environmental assessment appears to contradict itself, saying on the one hand, "The Proposed Action is in conformance with the following goal, objective and management action in the 2008 Ely District ROD and Approved RMP (August 2008): Goal: “Maintain and manage health, self-sustaining wild horse herds inside herd management areas within appropriate management levels to ensure a thriving natural ecological balance while preserving a multiple-use relationship with other uses and resources.” On the other hand, the agency intends to remove 100 percent of the wild horses.
At this point, the BLM plans to gather all the 620 wild horses off these lands by helicopter drives this summer. They would be shipped to BLM holding facilities where they will be prepared for adoption or sale to qualified individuals or long term holding.
Since 1971, when the Wild Horse and Burro Act took effect, wild horses have been zeroed out from 111 herd areas representing over 19 million acres.
The BLM currently has long-term holding contracts with private landowners in the Midwest, where about 22,000 unadopted or unsold wild horses are cared for at an annual cost of about $475 per horse paid by the U.S. taxpayers.
Copyright Environment News Service, ENS, 2009. All rights reserved.