There are two immediately pending public land policy issues that will likely find wild horses and burros in the scapegoat position once again. As wild horse and burro herds dwindle, exist in herds that contain fragmented genetic viability and pathetically low allotments of forage on public land, proposed policies continue to threaten wild horse and burro populations on America's public land.
Wild horses and burros are supposedly protected on public land by an act of Congress passed in 1971. The Act supposedly protects wild horses and burros as "living symbols of the pioneer spirit" and from "capture, branding harassment and death." This Act has been repeatedly weakened by amendments to other areas of National policy and it is about to be hit harder than ever if proposed legislation and policy changes are enacted.
Now we have proposed policy to protect sage grouse and the pending Grazing Improvement Act to further weaken any laws intended to protect America's wild horses.
First we have the issue of sage grouse management plans. The sage grouse is a large chicken sized bird that engages in elaborate courtship rituals and is disappearing from the western landscape primarily due to habitat destruction. States like Nevada benefit from tag fees as the bird is a popular target for hunters. The listing of sage grouse as an endangered species would create sweeping non-negotiable changes for hunters, extractive industry and the livestock producers, all of which are incredibly skillful weavers of the web of public land management laws.
In a recent article by AP attempts to stave off actual listing of the sage grouse, by creating preemptive policy, is supported by those that hold positions in government that actively support various special interests on public land. "This listing is further proof that we need to work together to protect sensitive species before they get to such a dismal point and negatively affect our rural economies," Nevada Senator Harry Reid said in a statement. The article also quotes the son of state legislator Pete Goicoechea, "For guys talking about expansion and going to the bank for loan, I'm not sure what the bank is going to tell me," said JJ Goicoechea, a rancher and veterinarian who is president of the Nevada Cattlemens Association. JJ is talking about the loans that ranchers are currently able to obtain using allotments as collateral.
Yesterday there was a meeting of the NorthEast Resource Advisory Council (RAC) on proposed sage grouse management policy. The draft Environmental Impact Statement is a thousand page document open for public comment through January 29th. RAC board members, most of which hold a grazing interest on public land, were offering language to be added to the final policy. Much of the suggested language involved the killing of predators like ravens or coyotes instead of habitat restoration. The comments that did address habit focused on comments that included decreasing wild horses because they eat forage yet increase cattle use to eat forage to prevent fires. It may not make much logical sense to most American's however those types of language changes are likely if the American public does not get involved in a process of public comments that the federal government makes about as clear as mud.
The second pending issue is the Grazing Improvement Act that recently passed through committee and is heading for a vote in the full Senate. This would amend the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 in order to extend the renewal term for public land grazing permits and leases from ten to twenty years. This may not sound like much but this proposed legislation would allow livestock producers who use public lands skirt environmental assessments that are intended to regulate this intensive use of your public land.
This proposed legislation comes on the heels of restrictions in states like Nevada to public land grazing imposed over the last two years due to overgrazing and drought conditions. These restrictions were extremely limited when you consider the scope of public land grazing but were met with vehement opposition by the state, counties and The Cattleman's Association. With White Pine County recently voting to support a lawsuit being proposed by NACO (Nevada Association of Counties) against the Bureau of Land Management and wild horses throughout the state as wild horses once again become the scapegoat.
Wild Horse advocates are very familiar with the phrase "tax-payer burden" being applied to the federal Wild Horse and Burro Program managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The entire program costs the nation about 75 million dollars with more than half the budget being used to feed the 50,000 wild horses that the government has stockpiled in holding facilities (about twice as many that actually inhabit the western ranges) to keep the range open to livestock and energy producers. Wild horses and burros are allowed to legally exist on about 10% of BLM land and receive less than 20% of available forage in that 10% of public land.
In contrast public land ranchers graze livestock on 155 million of the 260 million acres administered by the BLM and the Forest Service (FS). This "industry" is subsidized by US taxpayers by $100 million annually. It is important to remember that only about 4% of livestock utilized in industry comes from public land.
The Center for Biological Diversity recently released a report about the devastating impacts of public land grazing. "Cattle destroy native vegetation, damage soils and stream banks, and contaminate waterways with fecal waste. After decades of livestock grazing, once-lush streams and riparian forests have been reduced to flat, dry wastelands; once-rich topsoil has been turned to dust, causing soil erosion, stream sedimentation and wholesale elimination of some aquatic habitats; overgrazing of fire-carrying grasses has starved some western forests of fire, making them overly dense and prone to unnaturally severe fires."
"Public land policy is a nightmare for most advocates of wild horses to engage," stated Connie J. Cunningham a volunteer of Wild Horse Education, "There are terms used and protocols to follow in order to have your comment counted. Even if your comment is counted often the government will say it is irrelevant because it failed to comment to a specific issue or document. It is extremely frustrating for those that care about wild horses."
Wild Horse Education will post a sample comment (for each of these proposed plans) and how to submit your comments on their website this weekend. To receive an alert when comments are available "like" the group on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/WildHorseEducation or follow them on Twitter @WildHorseEduc .