As far back as 1990, the General Accounting Office (GAO) determined that the “BLM’s decisions on how many wild horses to remove from federal rangelands have not been based on direct evidence that existing wild populations exceed what the range can support.”
In an eye-opening report titled, “Rangeland Management: Improvements Needed in Federal Wild Horse Program,” GAO investigators bluntly accused the BLM of failing to conduct the requisite scientific studies necessary to ascertain whether wild horses actually cause degradation of rangelands, and cited the agency’s heavy reliance on livestock interests in making wild horse removal decisions that were based on conjecture, not fact:
“GAO found that existing information is insufficient to determine how many wild horses the range can support, the extent of degradation caused by wild horses, or consequently, the number of wild horses that should appropriately be removed from individual herd areas.
For example, for the five BLM areas GAO visited (covering 46 wild horse herd areas), BLM had not assessed the land’s carrying capacities in over 20 years in three cases and in over 10 years in another case.
The one resource area with data less than 10 years old did not use it to set target wild horse population levels and removal objectives. Despite the lack of data, BLM has proceeded with horse removals using targets based on perceived population levels dating back to 1971 and/or recommendations from BLM advisory groups comprised largely of livestock permittees.”
Even more damningly, the GAO said that in some cases, the forced wild horse removals had done nothing to improve the condition of the rangelands because once the horses were gone, BLM had actually increased the allowable numbers of cattle and sheep who were permitted to graze on those same lands. It said:
“BLM could not provide GAO with any information demonstrating that federal rangeland conditions have significantly improved because of wild horse removals.
This lack of impact has occurred largely because BLM has not reduced authorized grazing by domestic livestock, which because of their vastly larger numbers, consume 20 times more forage than wild horses, or improved the management of livestock to give the native vegetation more opportunity to grow.
In some areas, GAO found that BLM increased authorized livestock grazing levels after it had removed wild horses, thereby negating any reduction in total forage consumption and potential for range improvement.”
The GAO report duly noted the inherent weaknesses in the BLM’s bias toward livestock interests and explicitly spelled out the consequences of this flawed approach to wild horse management, which continues to pervade BLM’s decision-making even today:
“The primary cause of the degradation in rangeland resources is poorly managed domestic livestock (primarily cattle and sheep) grazing. When more animals are allowed to graze in an area than the land can support, forage consumption exceeds the regenerative capacity of the natural vegetation, resulting in erosion, watershed damage, and other deterioration.
Although recognizing that overgrazing was occurring, BLM range managers reported that no adjustments in the authorized livestock grazing levels were scheduled in 75 percent of the allotments threatened with further damage. These managers cited insufficient data on specific range conditions and resistance by livestock permittees as the primary reasons why action had not been taken.
As we further testified, BLM has been more concerned with the immediate needs of livestock interests or budget reductions than with ensuring the long-term health of the range. We further stated that a fundamental change in the agency’s management approach and orientation is necessary if substantive progress is to be made.”
There is little evidence that the agency has conducted the requisite scientific studies to support their ruthless removals of wild herds in the intervening years. Sure, the BLM has recently announced “fundamental reforms” in the way it intends to manage and care for wild horses. But notably, these so-called “reforms” do not include a scientific assessment of the relative impacts of horses and livestock on public rangelands.
The GAO’s 21-year-old report makes an unequivocal case for requiring wild horse management decisions to be based on empirical data, not on politics. Its mandate is as needed today as it was then:
“BLM decisions on how many wild horses to remove from federal rangelands have been made without benefit of solid information concerning range-carrying capacity or the impact of wild horses on range conditions. Instead, its decisions have reflected either the desire to achieve perceived historic wild horse population levels or deference to advisory groups largely comprised of livestock permittees. As a result, BLM’s wild horse removals have not produced appreciable improvements in range conditions and have exceeded the disposal capacity of BLM’s basic adoption program.
Future wild horse removal decisons need to be considered in the context of a broader strategy of range improvements based on accurate carrying capacity and range condition data.”