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Nevada organisations sue over wild horse numbers

Wild horses in Nevada

Wild horses in Nevada. © BLM

Two Nevada organisations are suing federal authorities over what they say is an overpopulation of wild horses in the state.

The action against the US Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was filed in the Federal District Court of Nevada by the Nevada Association of Counties and the Nevada Farm Bureau Federation.

The plaintiffs want federal authorities to comply with the requirements of the Wild Free-Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act of 1971.

Nevada is home to the largest population of wild horses and burros in the United States, with more than 80 percent of its public lands under federal management.

The two groups says that, under the act, it is the responsibility of the federal agencies that manage public land in Nevada to maintain the balance of species and uses on public lands.

To that end, the BLM established Appropriate Management Levels (AMLs) for wild horse and burro populations and is tasked with counting animals and maintaining population levels with the aim of maintaining a thriving ecological balance on the range.

The groups say that wild horse and burro populations have far exceeded AMLs for some time, and management practices have not kept pace with population growth.

The Nevada Association of Counties, a non-partisan association representing 17 counties, says it has been concerned about the overpopulation of wild horses for a number of years.

“Most of Nevada’s counties contain wild horse Herd Management Areas that have horse populations far in excess of BLM determined AMLs.

“This situation affects counties in a number of ways: wild horse overpopulation creates serious environmental concerns for horses, wildlife, and ecology of rangelands, and creates both direct and indirect economic impacts.

“Loss of use of public lands as well as the cost of services associated with the health and safety impacts created by the overpopulation of wild horses and burros decreases tax revenues and yet increases the costs that counties must bear.”

County authorities, individually and collectively, have a commitment, as well as a legal obligation, to protect the environment and economic viability of counties as well as the health, safety, and welfare of residents, the group said.

Wild horses in Nevada.

Wild horses in Nevada. © BLM

It said the lawsuit was filed in the hope that something could be done to move federal authorities to engage stakeholders in Nevada and begin to take action to improve wild horse and burro management strategies to comply with the act.

The organisation stressed that it recognized wild horses as an iconic symbol of the landscape and heritage of Nevada. It said it supported their presence on public lands.

“However, it is imperative that horses be maintained at Appropriate Management Levels and within properly established herd management areas.”

The organisation says the court action seeks a court order requiring the Department of Interior to
promptly and fully comply with all the provisions of the act, specifically:

  • Immediately conduct gathers of all excess animals on public lands in Nevada which exceed the currently established AMLs, both inside and outside of established herd management areas.
  • On a continuing basis thereafter, determine the current populations of animals in Nevada at least every two months and promptly conduct gathers of excess animals.
  • Cease the long-term warehousing of animals removed from excess populations of animals on public lands in Nevada and to instead promptly and without delay proceed to auction, sell and otherwise properly dispose of such animals in accordance with the act.
  • Adhere to multiple use principles in carrying out their responsibilities under the Act in Nevada including, but not limited to, compliance with the laws of Nevada as they pertain to water rights. 
  • Cease interfering with Nevada water rights owned by third parties by preventing their owner’s access to and use of water and to cease favoring horses and burros, particularly excess animals, over other users of the lands including wildlife. 

However,  wild horse advocate Laura Leigh, of the non-profit group, Wild Horse Education, describes the lawsuit as retaliation.

Leigh, who travels the western rangelands monitoring wild horse roundups, said: “This suit comes on the heels of a contentious debate after a few ranchers were given grazing restrictions during the last two years of drought.

“Those valid restrictions that were given to ranchers that had overgrazed areas significantly and continued to graze during the drought were met by vehement opposition by the counties, livestock board and the state of Nevada Department of Agriculture.

“After years of being catered to by the federal government this is a ‘hit back’ for the few instances of making them actually ‘do the right thing’ for the range. Wild horses have always been the scapegoat.”

The suit’s claim that the BLM was in violation of provisions of the Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act was a “mathematical notion”, she said.

“What is so frustrating is that these mathematical notions only work on one side of an equation.

“If BLM’s monitoring is flawed then it was also flawed in determining AML, making AML an inaccurate barometer of range or herd health. If the data is flawed then it is flawed. You can’t claim accuracy in one portion to further your agenda when you base your agenda on the claim of inaccuracy.

“I agree the data is, and has been flawed. The notion that AML is a ‘truth’ is pure fiction, however.”

Leigh noted that public land ranchers grazed livestock on 155 million of the 260 million acres administered by the BLM and the Forest Service.

The industry was subsidized by US taxpayers by over $US100 million annually, she asserted.

“It is important to remember that only about 4 percent of livestock utilized in industry comes from public land.

“Wild horses and burros exist on about 12 percent of public land. Within that 12 percent of public land they are most often given less than 15 percent of the available forage.

“At a time when issues such as the sage grouse planning documents and hydraulic fracking moving onto Nevada’s public land, it is no surprise that ranchers fear a loss of income and are more protective over water rights they might be able to sell, and therefore want less restrictions on,” said Leigh. “Historically, the livestock community hits the little guy first – wild horses.”

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Comments (10)

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  1. Carol Cecil says:

    So the BLM published wacko AML population numbers, considered faulty by even their own multi-million dollar NAS study, then these two groups with another agenda try to use those faulty population levels along with BLM mismanagement to WIPE OUT our wild horses and burros? We’re SUPPOSED to be protecting them – not managing them into extinction!!! What’s the real agenda here? Enough of the wild horses being the bad guys – they’re NOT! They don’t get enough room already. It’s time for ranchers to stop taking cheap grazing for granted.

  2. Carol Cecil says:

    And don’t think that the deal to ‘get rid of’ the wild horses is humane! Check into what happens to them in real life. It’s not the pretty picture BLM paints about endless fields in the Midwest. It’s been proven that many of these wild horses have ended up being slaughtered. BLM has some great employees but their overall record is appalling and inhumane at best. There absolutely is a way to co-exist – but groups have to start talking first – outside of lawsuits.

  3. Shane Destry says:

    thanks to Laura Leigh of Wild Horse education for speaking the truth on this issue. “Excess wild horses” is a term with no meaning until you define it in relation to what ? There are no wild horses in excess of the capacity of the ecology to sustain them in symbiotic harmony with other species. They have lived free in such harmony long before the true invasive species, overgrazing cattle were introduced ! Welfare cattle interests, wrongly subsidized by public taxdollars define everything which cuts into their profit or water use as “excessive”. It is high time to drive the welfare cattle ranchers off public lands that belong to all the American people and to the wild horses which were a part of the ecosystem long before the useless BLM who doesn’t protect our land at all but “manages” it to benefit corporate profiteers, from cattle intrests to would-be frackers. Let the wild horses out of BLM prisons. Send the corrupt BLM officials and their contractors for these brutal round ups to prison ! Problem solved!

  4. Barbara Warner says:

    There are no excess populations of wild horses since 80% of the herds are not genetically viable and sustainable. However, the 1971 Wild Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act is being broken since the HMA’s are to be managed principally for wild horses,and the wild horses and burros are to be protected and preserved.Instead the BLM has been”managing them for extinction”. The recent NAS report found the constant removals were causing the increased breeding as the horses try to replace the ones lost. Also the 1990-91 Government Accounting Office study proved the millions of cattle destroy the range and riparian areas and not the few thousand wild horses left. It is estimated there are less than 18,000 wild horses left in all the West now so all removals must stop. The near 50,000 in holding must be returned to their legal, over 22 million acres of HMA’s that were taken from them . The special interests that have taken over our public lands must be removed and our American wild horses and burros returned to run free like the law mandated according to the wishes of the public. These are our horses and must not be destroyed by greedy welfare ranchers, hunters and energy corporations. Our public lands and wildlife have suffered too much already and this unjust lawsuit must be defeated.

  5. Robert C. Bauer says:

    The Unnatural Concept of the Appropriate Management Level

    It has been the constant assertion, by the Bureau of Land Management that it is striving, through its Wild Horse and Burro Program, to maintain a thriving “natural” ecological balance of the
    rangelands of the west. It carries this out by adjusting the numbers of wild horses and burros on the
    public lands, based on what it calls an Appropriate Management Level of wild horses and burros for
    these areas. This Appropriate Management Level, or AML, is an established number of wild horses
    and or burros allocated for these lands, annually. It was also originally designated as something fair, and just reflection of what the conditions of the rangeland would tolerate, taking into account all
    other species of wildlife in the area, as well as the condition of the forage, the wild horses and burros
    being the principle species taken into account. In addition, this number was intended to be altered to
    reflect changes to those systems, based upon continual studies to have been carried out in those
    areas. An erroneous AML has taken precedence, however, in every herd management area, and is not
    being revised. This is motivated by the cattle industry, the sheep industry and ranchers for the
    purposes of creating the illusion, in the eyes of the public, an over population in the wild horse and burro community, and therefore justifying subsequent massive roundups of the same. In essence this
    concept of AML is based not upon what the actual ecological carrying capacity of an area is, due to its
    amount of forage, but rather is based upon how much forage the BLM are allowing the wild horses
    and burros, in comparison to how much is allocated for cattle, pronghorn antelope, and other species
    of grazers that inhabit a given area. To justify this removal of wild horses and burros from their legally designated areas, the Bureau of Land Management will often site reasons of dry conditions, poor
    forage, not to mention damage to the rangeland itself attributed by the BLM to the wild horses and
    burros. Also, the BLM will assert that the populations of wild horses and burros, in any given area, will double in number every four years, with roughly a continual 20% annual growth rate. Sentiment often is used to appeal to the emotions of the public in order to gain support for the altering of numbers of the wild horses and burros based upon the above reasoning. In exploring the logic of the BLM, one must confront themselves with certain glaring realities.

    First, one must accept the fact that the artificial, manmade alteration of an ecosystem is opposed to the very concept of “Natural”, not to mention the notion of balance. To propose that every year within an ecosystem there will continually be roughly a 20% growth rate and assume a doubling of wild horse and or burro populations every four years neglects the widely varying mortality rates and reproductive rates in the wild horse and burro society. In essence, for the BLM to make such claims, it is assuming nature is going to conform to the BLM’s expectations, when in reality 1st year mortality rates within a wild horse population can vary anywhere between 14% and 50% annually, and adult mortality, over one year, can vary between 5% and 25% annually. This is based upon a National Academy of Science study of wild horse and burro populations. Such assertions by the BLM are foolish and unscientific. As an example, in one such area, the Pryor Mts., between the years of 2002 and 2005, there was a 0% population growth as natural mortality compensated for reproduction. Within that time frame, from 2004 into 2005 only one foal survived, the 1st year mortality, in this particular year, being almost 100%. It is also ludicrous for the BLM to make such claims when reproductive rates can vary radically due to the amount of stress within an ecosystem. In such situations there may be times when the wild horses and or burros may not reproduce at all due to the environmental, and weather related conditions.

    Additionally, the very idea of using a manmade AML assumes a system is static in nature, when in fact biological and weather related variables within that system are constantly fluctuating, even within an annual period of time, i.e. these are dynamic in nature. Numbers of any given species of animal within that system, therefore, including the wild horses and burros, will constantly change, reflecting these continual changes in that system. Because conditions change constantly, the carrying capacity of the land for each species of animal will also, accordingly. What will follow is that the density of a species within that area will be affected by weather or environmental factors, a concept called “Density Independent Inhibition”. Subsequently the density of one species will directly affect that of another, called “Density Dependent Inhibition”. These principles are opposed to the idea of a fixed number of horses and or burros, sustainable in an ecosystem, called an Appropriate Management Level.

    There is also a continual misconception as to the nature of the wild horses and burros out on the rangelands. This misconception motivates public opinion to support actions which alter conditions out on the rangelands in order to supposedly benefit the wild horses and burros. This sentiment, the BLM constantly plays upon to win the support of congress, the legal system, and the public in general, to perpetuate the roundups. This is a controversial issue, yet must be brought out in the open, that all can look at the saga of the wild horses and burros from a more objective viewpoint. The suffering and death of any animal is something hard to swallow for the most, but is inexcusable when coming from human hands. Yet when considering the horses and burros out on the rangelands of the west, we have to remember that they are not domestic animals grazing in a private pasture, domestic animals that are hay and grain fed, with shelter provided and water. The wild horses and burros are just this, “wild”, as wild as the pronghorn, and the mountain lion. Life and death for them, out of the rangelands, due to natural conditions, whether mild or harsh, is their life, and from an ecological standpoint, how nature brings about balance through natural selection. Generally speaking, the moment an individual seeks to artificially alter a natural system, motivated by emotion, is the moment that system ceases to be a thriving “natural system”, and subsequently begins to throw this organized entity out of balance, as these sentimental attempts to help nature, are directly opposed to natures mechanisms.

    It is clear, therefore, that the concept of an “Appropriate Management Level”, of wild horses and burros for a given area, one that is so quickly regurgitated as the answer for every round up, has no basis in reference to a thriving natural ecological balance. The AML whether it is revised annually and considered fair, or unrevised, is still unnatural and hinders balance through nature’s mechanisms. Nature knows very well how to maintain the, “Appropriate Management Level”, of all species of the animals in the wild successfully, and has been doing so for thousands of years. It is a ludicrous assumption to spend millions of dollars every year for a manmade substitute. In truth, to follow the philosophy of this humanly conceived AML, along with the usage of contraceptives on the wild horses and burros, and the adjustment of sex ratios, will quickly bring an end to these majestic animals, as the vital component to ecological balance that they are.

    Acknowledgements: Lisa Leblanc, and Craig Downer, Wildlife Ecologist

    Robert C. Bauer
    2108 Carlton Drive
    New Albany, IN 47150
    502-773-8217

  6. western ecos says:

    When are you people going to accept the fact that horses are not wildlife and must be intensley managed like any livestock, and just like the livestock are which you all claim to be a competing interest.

    When the ranchers took care of the herds, all was well. They kept the size down and kept good genetics. Then you people wanted more protection, and all you created was more problems and worse conditions for horses as well as destruction of our ecosystems.
    Good job. By the way, the picture on LL’s website is of horses standing in a reservoir built by a cattle rancher. If you get rid of the cows, you will be getting rid of the horses too. Horses need water to live, in case that concept escapes you.

    • Ashley O'Brien says:

      @western ecos I’m quite sure the problem is the lack of balance and sharing of space. For some reason you confuse the cattle as ever being threat of complete mass removal. To aid you, the issue is inflexibility from those who financially benefit from cattle grazing land usage-and the demand for all of one species to be brutally removed and gutted and canned for your convenience. Get a life,GeT A SouL!

      • Western Ecos says:

        Why are horse people so mean and rude? It must be part of the condition.

        Anyhow, you people keep trying to paint of picture of a rancher/blm conspiracy. What you don’t mention is that numerous scientific organizations (The Wildlife Society, Society for Ecological Restoration, et al), state and local governments, and a majority of people who have to live with feral horses are wanting more management and less horses.

        The reason is simple, and it ain’t money, it is true concern for an environment over-run by an invasive species; the horse.

    • Laura Leigh says:

      The “reservoir” on my website was NOT “built by a rancher.” Sorry… the picture is of a pipeline built by a mining company FOR a rancher after BLM gave the natural spring to an extractive company. NO provision was created to protect the horses. Just to make sure we “get the facts” straight.

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