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Let them roam or round them up? Controversy surrounds wild horse gathers in Eastern Oregon

Wild horse advocates claim the Bureau of Land Management is clearing the animals to make room for grazing cattle.

VALE, Ore. — The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is rounding up hundreds of wild horses before the end of 2021. These gathers, as they're called, have been contentious for years as BLM argues that controlling horse and burro populations is best for the land, while animal advocates claim the animals are better off roaming the land.

During the week of August 30, BLM conducted a gather of 253 animals. It’s currently conducting a separate gather with the goal of rounding up 1,900 horses in what’s known as the Barren Valley Complex from about Rome, Oregon to the Nevada border. Once the horses are gathered, they go into an adoption program where people can adopt them. But some of the horses end up back on the land they were collected from and others end up in slaughterhouses, a crux in the controversy between BLM and horse advocates.

Shaney Rockefeller, a wild horse specialist in Vale, said the wild horses are dying from a lack of food and water as the state grapples with its current drought but multiple horse advocacy groups said these animals are being thrown off the land for other uses.

BLM said it’s estimated there are 90,000 wild horses across the country and claim it would be ideal for there to only be 27,000 animals. In Oregon alone, it’s estimated there are more than 7,000 of these creatures in 18 herd management areas (HMAs), mostly in the eastern and southern parts of the state. The target number for the state is between 1,500 to 2,700 horses and burros.

:The individual BLM or U.S. Forest Service district and their land-use planning process is where the forage allocations for wild horses and burros are set," said Rob Sharp, supervisory wild horse and burro specialist for BLM-Burns District. "That’s the process where they plan not only for wild horse and burro management, but all resource values demanded of the public lands."

Sharp said they set a conservative number of animals because of years where they don’t get very much rainfall to produce food, water and the necessary habitat to keep the animals alive.

“In addition to the drought emergencies that we face, we also run into wildfires,” Sharp said. “The habitat is there one day, then the fire comes through. We need to make very immediate, rapid decisions that will address those issues.”

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, there have been more than 44,000 wildfires and complexes in 2021 that have burned more than 3.1 million acres in the Western U.S. At least eight of those are currently burning in Oregon.

"The science and methodology used to discuss the number of acres (the horses are allowed to roam) is 50 years old," said CANA Foundation founder and president Manda Kalimian. "The government doesn’t see the horse as an integral part of the natural system."

Part of the CANA Foundation’s mission is to share the story of the horse. It believes, partially based on the research by  Ross MacPhee, Ph.D., curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, that the horse is a native species to the U.S. and the benefits of these animals roaming free outweigh the negatives.   

The CANA Foundation, and other groups like Citizens Against Equestrian Slaughter, said the BLM’s reasoning is just a cover to allow special interests to move in and use the land.

"They (the BLM) see the use of the public land is impeded by wild horses," Kalimian claimed. "They have exceeded what many people see as fair and reasonable, and they’re taking more horses off the land… because they want to lease out the land to corporate farming, oil, fracking, drilling, and coal mining."

Theresa Barbour, a member, and legal researcher for Citizens Against Equestrian Slaughter adds:

“The law in 1971 said the BLM had manage these horses on the land where they were in 1971. Most herd areas were outlined on a map by 1973… and the language in the law said that these ranges had to be managed principally for horses. So, the BLM took all these various areas and said we (the BLM) are going to call three of them a range, and that’s what we (the BLM) are going to manage principally for the horses. The rest of them, we (the BLM) are going to call them herd areas. When the Federal Land Management Policy Act (FLPMA) came about a few years later, it said they (the BLM) had to manage for multiple uses of the land. So, without using the rest of what it said, they (the BLM) said we (the BLM) have to manage these herd areas for multiple uses. We (the BLM) are going to draw a little circle down here in the herd area, and we’re going to call that the HMA. Now all the horses have this little area, and that’s where they’re allowed to be. The rest of it is for multiple uses, like cows.”

Sharp said that livestock, just like horses and burros, are managed in certain areas under the land use planning process. Permits are given out on an annual basis, and that’s in response to the situations in each area. He also said it’s managed seasonally in the spring and summer, which is a different impact than year-round grazing by wild horses.

“The forage allocations for livestock in the last 20 years have reduced tens of thousands of animal unit months (AUMs) just in Oregon alone,” Sharp said. “At the same time, our on-range populations of wild horses and burros within the state have more than doubled what we target in our statewide appropriate management level (AML). So, it’s a misconception to say we just remove wild horses and burros to make room for more cows and sheep. It’s not the reality.”

Sharp acknowledges that a lot has changed since the mandate was put in place back in 1971 and said sometimes they struggle to keep up with the demands for the usage of public lands. He said:

“By regulation, we analyze the impacts of the wild horses and burros on their habitat with other resource demands. Let’s say there is a land use project that doesn’t directly influence the population that’s not specifically related to a gather or fertility treatment. We are analyzing the potential impacts of that proposal to the habitat of the animals. Recreation, for instance, has really boomed in the last couple years. The bureau is trying to balance the side effects of that. It’s a prime example of how the uses have shifted from historical uses.”  

RELATED: Hundreds of wild horses rounded up in Eastern Oregon

Advocacy groups also raised concerns about the management of wild animals in general. The CANA Foundation believes wild horses endangered by a climate crisis, like drought, should be relocated to the close to 640 million acres of land owned by the federal government where conditions are not as dire.

“One of the stipulations in the original 1971 act requires management of wild horses and burros within the areas they roamed at the passage of the act,” Sharp said. “So, it’s actually contrary to law for the Forest Service or the BLM to relocate these animals to areas outside where they were documented at the time of the passage of the act.”

Another controversy surrounding the management of the animals is what happens to them after they’re gathered. They’re rounded up by using a helicopter to herd the animals into a trap. Once there, they’re sorted and separated, then transferred to a corral facility. The animals are then acclimated to living away from the range for several weeks before they’re prepared for adoption.

Recently, California Senator Diane Feinstein (D) called for federal land managers to investigate the number of horses that were caught on public land that ended up in slaughterhouses. She also asked for the BLM to reevaluate a $1,000 cash payment it offers to people who adopt mustangs. Horse advocates say the money provides an unintended incentive to obtain the mustangs then illegally sell them for slaughter.

RELATED: No state mask rule? No COVID-19 money, Feinstein proposes

Sharp spoke about the adoption program utilized by the Burns District in Eastern Oregon:

“When someone adopts an animal under an adoption program, they sign an agreement with BLM agreeing to provide humane care, not resell that animal, not transfer that animal to another individual within a one-year period. In that one-year adoption period, although it’s in the care of the adopter, it still remains property of the federal government. It’s still protected under the stipulations of the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming horse and Burro Act. During that one year of time, each animal is either inspected by an authorized officer and employee of the BLM or one of our dozens of volunteer compliance and inspection officers that serve us in Oregon and Washington… Then at the one-year anniversary of the original adoption date, the adopter is mailed what’s called the title of eligibility letter.  That letter requires one final verification by either a veterinarian, a member of the BLM, a local animal control officer, or someone qualified to inspect that animal one last time before signing that letter and the certificate of title being issued. Once that certificate of title is issued, that animal becomes private property. It’s no longer protected under the act at that point.” 

The complexities of these issues are vast and there is only one place where they can be resolved. The 1971 mandate given to the BLM was issued by Congress and signed into law by former President Richard Nixon. It would take another act of Congress to change the way the BLM manages the horses and burros in the state and country.