Thursday, July 28, 2011
There is a major land grab taking place on our public lands, one that is both criminal and exploitative, and it is being perpetuated by our government and with judicial approval.
But there is a glimmer of hope, and it comes from a law which was meant to protect our wild horses and burros and the lands they live on. These horses are an integral part of our history and who we are as a nation.
In the 1960’s, an elderly woman named Vilma Johnson saw a tragedy taking place. Wild horses and burros were being exterminated like the buffalo before them. Out of an estimated 2 million wild horses, around 20,000 remained. Johnson went across the country educating school children about what was happening to the wild horses and burros. She gathered letters and support until it became the second-largest cause during the Vietnam War.
Under enormous public pressure, Congress unanimously passed the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971 (WFRHBA).
About 53 million acres of public lands were then designated to their welfare and protection. These areas were called Herd Management Areas (HMAs) and under the 1971 act, rangelands were to be devoted principally – but not exclusively – to them under a multiple use mandate.
Congress designated the Bureau of Land Management to manage them.
But the BLM, driven by cattle and sheep interests within their own agency, had little allegiance or affection towards the wild horses and burros; as a result, the agency has illegally given more grazing rights to livestock on these HMAs using the excuse that wild horses and burros are overpopulated and destroying the ecology, starving and thirsting to death, and depleting valuable water resources when in fact it is the cattle and sheep grazing, mining, and oil and gas extracting doing the damage.
Wild horses are one of nature’s greatest ecologists. They nurture the soil with their droppings and reseeding pasture lands as they go, unlike cattle and sheep whose digestive systems require a more thorough breakdown of matter.
“WILD HORSES ARE ONE OF NATURE’S GREATEST ECOLOGISTS.”
Horses’ hooves form perfect “cup indentations” in the soil, which tends to hold water when the heavy rains come that would otherwise slide across the land, causing erosion. They step around the bush, not on it, as BLM likes to claim. Wild horses and burros are also great fire protectors, since they eat brush and dry twigs. BLM spends millions of tax dollars on fire control when our wild horses and burros could do the job at no cost.
Since 1971, the BLM has zeroed out 19 million acres of these wild horse and burro herd areas with one excuse or another, without any Congressional permission or oversight, while it judiciously guards the 153 million acres of public lands that gives exclusive grazing rights to cattle under the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934. When you ask the BLM to allow for wild horses and burros to share lands under the Taylor Grazing Act, they say it would require an act of Congress.
But when it comes to taking the land designated for wild horses, it doesn’t. Not according to the BLM.
In saving wild horses and burros from roundups conducted by the BLM, and keeping those animals as a presence on our public lands, eventually the government will have to acquiesce to the law within the WFRHBA.
If the act were enforced in our court systems, the BLM would not be allowed to continue the exploitation of these remaining wild horse and burro lands. Mine operators would have to curb their water use, thus preserving the aquifers now being drained from miles around. Oil and gas exploration that employed “fracking” would have to ensure they couldn’t pollute the water tables for extractions. Ranchers would no longer be able to kill competitive grazers and predators to protect their livestock on public lands, thus bringing back the bison, wolves, bears and coyotes that help keep wildlife populations healthy.
According to an Associated Press story by Ben Neary, the BLM plans next month to gather 900 wild horses from a southwest Wyoming HMA, castrate the stallions and release 177 to the range as geldings. The rest will be put up for adoption or sale, or sent to long-term holding sites.
The Western Watersheds Project and the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, along with some private citizens, filed a federal lawsuit this week in to keep it from happening.
But in order to have that lawsuit succeed and to protect these horses and our public lands, one judge with clear vision will need to come forward and enforce the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act.
LORNA MOFFAT is a Peninsula-based freelance journalist and wild-horse advocate whose work has appeared in Vogue, The Santa Barbara Press and the Weekly.