The Bureau of Land Management’s Winnemucca District recently released a long-awaited plan but no actual time frame for gathers and fertility control to reduce what the agency says are excessive and range-damaging herds of wild horses and burros in the Blue Wing Complex west of Lovelock.
As usual, both sides of the mustang debate were unhappy with the Environmental Assessment and the lack of a long-term solution or compromise for mustangs and livestock in the complex of public and private land. Ranchers say excess wild horses and burros are destroying the range and crowding out wildlife. Wild horse advocates say livestock has a greater impact on the range.
In the EA, BLM officials say declining range conditions and a shortage of water call for drastic reductions in wild horse and burro herds using gathers and on-the-range birth control but the timing of such plans depends on available funding and holding space for the captured animals.
With about 2,283,300 acres of public land, the complex seems big enough for all, but is not, according to BLM officials. In a tour of the complex near the end of a long-term drought in 2016, BLM officials said damaged riparian zones and springs indicated excess wild horses and burros.
As a result of the impacts, the EA calls for greater wild horse and burro management by the agency. The most recent round ups in the Blue Wing were in 2013, according to the document.
“In the last several years, BLM has documented severe utilization of riparian vegetation and extreme degradation of many springs located in the upper and lower elevation areas of the complex. The majority of water sources producing the highest flows within the complex consist of wells on private property. There is not adequate water on the public lands within the complex to continue supporting the increasing number of wild horses and burros. Due to these findings, BLM has determined excess wild horses and burros are on the range and management is necessary.”
The complex includes five Herd Management Areas designated for wild horse and burro herds and four Herd Areas considered off-limits to wild horses and burros. Parts of all those HMA and HA areas overlap with nine grazing allotments designated by the BLM for public land livestock permits.
The BLM sets an Appropriate Management Level (AML) for wild horses and burros for each HMA and an Animal Unit Month (AUM) for cows, sheep and goats allowed in each grazing allotment.
The EA says there are 2,492 wild horses and 848 burros in the complex based on a December, 2014 census plus three years of projected annual population growth of 20 percent for horses and 11 percent for burros. AMLs for the Blue Wing are listed as 333 to 553 horses and 55 to 90 burros.
In order to reach low AMLs for wild horses and burros in the complex, the BLM would have to round up and stockpile or adopt out about 2,159 mustangs and 793 burros according to the EA.
The plan was initiated after litigation against the BLM was filed by local ranchers and Pershing County officials. The litigation was set aside by the federal court after the BLM agreed to make a plan and take action to reduce wild horse and burro herds. District Attorney Bryce Shields said the EA acknowledges range, water and wildlife impacts but doesn’t say when the action will be taken.
“On its face, the Gather Plan appears to address those problems by implementing immediate and multiple gathers/removals on the Blue Wing. However, the Plan makes such action contingent on the BLM’s budget and available space in holding facilities. Such contingency language fails to provide any certainty as to when the BLM will actually perform gathers and seems like an excuse to do nothing to fix the problem.”
Shields said the Blue Wing Complex EA was “tough to swallow,” given the federal government’s substantial money and resources. The lack of a time commitment indicates federal officials and Congressional politicians don’t take the wild horse and burro issue seriously, he said.
“Unless the BLM changes its management approach and Congress takes action to promote rather than obstruct effective management, our natural resources and way of life will be affected for decades to come,” Shields said in an email. “It is high time that Congress, the U.S. Department of the Interior and the BLM step up and end the damage to the public lands.”
Wild Horse Education President Laura Leigh of Reno said the BLM’s appropriate management levels for wild horse and burros in the Blue Wing Complex and other areas are based on outdated and unscientific information. In her opinion, wild horses should be managed like sage grouse — as a public land resource, rather than as a “use,” considered competition by private livestock owners.
“The old inventory methods are outdated. What we should be looking at in a place like Blue Wing is what the AML for these wild horses should really be,” Leigh said. “It’s somewhere in between what we said it was years ago and the number we have now.”
During a 2016 tour of the Blue Wing, Leigh said she observed about the same range damage from wild horses, livestock, wildlife and drought that she observed during a previous tour in 2012.
“It was really no different than what I saw at the last tour,” she said. “I saw impacts from livestock, wild horses, rabbits and drought. Everything has an impact on the range.”
Since the impacts have not changed as wild horses and burros herds expanded, Leigh said the appropriate management levels are too low and new inventories and range studies are needed.
“We’re talking about an AML of 300 to 500 wild horses on the Blue Wing and the BLM says we have about 2,500 horses out there now,” Leigh said. “That tells me AML of 300 to 500 is extremely low and we need to think about how we’ve managed wild horses in the past. We’re finding that the old inventories were incorrect and that maybe wild horses were under-counted by 30 percent. The National Academy of Science has said there’s nothing factual to base this conversation on.”
Both sides may have heard some good news last week when the U.S. Senate increased the budget for the wild horse and burro program and maintained the prohibition on wild horse and burro slaughter. But, a compromise between the House and Senate budgets will be in the works.