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Agency responds to wild horse advocate claims

January 11, 2010

The federal agency charged with managing wild horses in the United States has replied to several claims made by wild horse advocates.

The bureau has been facing increasing scrutiny in recent months as wild horse campaigners have challenged its management of the herds.

Campaigners have taken to the streets in protest over the ongoing muster in the Calico complex of northern Nevada, where the bureau intends removing up to 2700 mustanges in an eight-week operation.

The bureau has responded to a number of assertions made by some advocates in a document it entitled, "Myths and facts".

It reads as follows:

Myth 1: The BLM is selling or sending wild horses to slaughter.

Fact: This charge is absolutely false. The Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management care deeply about the well-being of wild horses, both on and off the range, and the BLM does not and has not sold or sent horses or burros to slaughter. Consequently, as the Government Accountability Office noted in a report issued in October 2008, the BLM is not in compliance with a December 2004 amendment to the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act that directs the Bureau to sell excess horses or burros "without limitation."

Myth 2: Horses are held in crowded "holding pens."

Fact: This assertion is false. The BLM's short-term holding corrals provide adequate space to horses, along with clean feed and water, while long-term holding pastures - large ranches located mainly in Kansas and Oklahoma - permit the horses to roam freely on thousands of acres of grassland.

Myth 3: Since 1971, the BLM has illegally taken away more than 19 million acres set aside for wild horses and burros.

Fact: This claim is false. No specific amount of acreage was "set aside" for the exclusive use of wild horses and burros under the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act. The Act directed the BLM to determine the areas where horses and burros were found roaming, and then to manage the animals within the boundaries of those areas. More than four million acres of the 51.3 million acres identified as roaming areas consisted of state or private land not controlled by the BLM. There are numerous other reasons why another 14.9 million acres were removed from wild horse and burro management, such as the absence of one or more critical habitat components (such as forage or water) to sustain horses and burros year-round; the claiming of some horses as private livestock during the claiming period provided for in the 1971 law; the transfer of some BLM-managed land to other Federal agencies through legislation; and conflicts with other resources, such as threatened or endangered species.

Myth 4: The BLM is managing wild horse herds to extinction.

Fact: This charge is patently false. The BLM is seeking to achieve the appropriate management level of 26,600 wild horses and burros on Western public rangelands, or 10,000 fewer than the current West-wide population of nearly 37,000. The BLM actively monitors the genetics of each herd by sending genetic samples to Dr. Gus Cothran at Texas A&M University. Dr. Cothran furnishes the BLM a report on every sample with recommendations for specific herds.

Myth 5: The BLM removes wild horses to make room for more cattle grazing on public rangelands.

Fact: This claim is totally false. The removal of wild horses and burros from public rangelands is carried out to ensure rangeland health, in accordance with land-use plans that are developed in an open, public process. These land-use plans are the means by which the BLM carries out its core mission, which is to manage the land for multiple uses while protecting the land's resources. Authorized livestock grazing on BLM-managed land has declined by nearly 50 percent since the 1940s; actual livestock grazing on public rangelands is even less than what is authorized because of such factors as drought, wildfire, and climate change impacts.

Myth 6: The BLM lacks the legal authority to gather animals from overpopulated herds or to use helicopters in doing so.

Fact: This assertion is false. Section 1333 of the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act mandates that once the Interior Secretary "determines...on the basis of all information currently available to him, that an overpopulation exists on a given area of the public lands and that action is necessary to remove excess animals, he shall immediately remove excess animals from the range so as to achieve appropriate management levels." Section 1338 of the law authorizes the BLM's use of helicopters and motorized vehicles in its management of wild horses and burros.

Myth 7: Gathers of wild horses are inhumane.

Fact: This claim is false. The mortality rate resulting from helicopter-driven gathers is less than half of one percent. In 2009, the number of gather-related fatalities (out of more than 7,500 horses gathered) was 0.51 percent.

Myth 8: If left alone, wild horses will limit their own population.

Fact: This is untrue. There is absolutely no scientific evidence to support the idea that wild horses will automatically limit their own population. There were an estimated 17,300 wild horses in 1971, and those numbers rose to a peak of more than 57,000 before the BLM was authorized and able to use helicopters for gathers. If left unchecked, Mother Nature would regulate the wild horse and burro population through the classic boom-and-bust cycle, where the population increases dramatically, food becomes scarce, and the population crashes through starvation.

Myth 9: The Government Accountability Office, in a report issued in October 2008, found that the BLM has been mismanaging the wild horse and burro program.

Fact: This claim is completely false. The GAO made no such finding. The full report can be accessed here:

Myth 10: Wild horses are native to the United States.

Fact: This claim is false. Wild horses are not, despite romantic speculation to the contrary, a native species. American wild horses are descended from domesticated horses brought over by European explorers that have adapted successfully to the Western range.

Myth 11: Two million wild horses roamed the United States in the 1800s.

Fact: This figure has never been and cannot be substantiated. In a book titled The Mustangs (1952) by J. Frank Dobie, the author noted that no scientific estimate of wild horse numbers was made in the 19th century. He went on to write: "All guessed numbers are mournful to history. My own guess is that at no time were there more than a million mustangs in Texas and no more than a million others scattered over the remainder of the West." Mr. Dobie's admitted "guess" of no more than two million mustangs has over the years been transformed into an asserted "fact" that two million mustangs actually roamed America in the 1800s. When it comes to the historical wild horse population, a substantiated and more relevant figure is the number found roaming in 1971, when the BLM was given legal authority to protect and manage wild horses and burros. That number was 17,300 mustangs (plus 8,045 burros), as compared to today's population of 33,100 wild horses (plus 3,800 burros).



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