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Abridged version of ‘I Respectfully Disagree’ conversation about wild horse management in Wyoming

Wild horses roaming public lands in Wyoming.
Wild horses roaming public lands in Wyoming.

As part of Wyoming Public Media’s ‘I Respectfully Disagree’ series, four panelists discussed issues surrounding wild horses in the state on a Facebook live.

Stakeholders spoke for an hour about topics like herd management, fertility control and holding facilities. Wyoming Public Radio’s Caitlin Tan mediated the conversation.

An abridged version of the conversation is below.

Caitlin Tan: Panelists, I'll introduce each of you. And then if you can say a little bit about yourselves. We have Erik Molvar, the executive director of Western Watersheds Project.

Erik Molvar: Western Watersheds Project, functionally, we don't really have a position on wild horses per se, other than the fact that we're coming at this from a conservation perspective. We're a group that focuses on having healthy public lands and native ecosystems.

CT: All right, thank you, Eric. We also have Christi Chapman, who's the director and co-founder of Wyoming Wild Horse Improvement Partnership. Christi, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Christi Chapman: We want to see thriving horses on healthy rangelands. If the populations are too high, there's too much competition for resources, and the land itself suffers. So we are advocates for fertility control. We also advocate for the rest of Wyoming. And it's not just a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) issue. There are wild horses throughout the entire state. They're owned in the sense that nobody's managing them. There are several horses on tribal lands. So we'd like to be a part of the solutions for all of that.

CT: We also have Senator Brian Boner, who is a Wyoming State senator representing District 2. Senator, you want to introduce yourself?

Brian Boner: I'm a sixth generation rancher from Converse County. I work on the Agriculture Committee, which has been dealing with the wild horse issue for the past year to see what we can do to help out with the management of these horses, not just on federal land, as Christi correctly pointed out, but on private, state, as well as the reservation.

CT: Thank you. Suzanne Roy, the executive director of the American Wild Horse Campaign, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Suzanne Roy: We're a national wild horse protection and conservation organization. This is not a Wyoming issue, it's a national issue. Because these are our public lands – the public lands in America. It's part of our amazing legacy as a nation that we have these magnificent public lands, mostly in the West. All Americans have a say in how they're managed, and that includes how the wild horses that are protected on them are managed.

CT: So let's start with a broad question. I want to just know a little bit about how each of you feel about how wild horses are managed in Wyoming right now. Eric, let's start with you.

EM: They're not considered natural resources, from the point of view that you can't make money from them. And so consequently, they tend to get consideration after you consider what allocations you can make to the land if you're the Bureau of Land Management or the Forest Service in terms of what kind of resources can be extracted and made a profit from and in Wyoming. The wild horse issue really is an outgrowth of, or a secondary issue, to livestock grazing on public lands, because all of the lands where wild horses occur also are grazed by domestic livestock.

A lot of times this is an issue that gets talked about in terms of wild horses being overpopulated, and wild horses needing to be controlled. But the reality is the agencies, and the Bureau of Land Management being the primary one, are allocating the vast majority of the forage to domestic livestock, and that's what’s driving range conditions. That's really what's driving the ability of the land to sustain other types of wildlife, as well.

In the Red Desert, there's been a very aggressive helicopter roundup program where the majority of the horses were taken out last year. And frankly, if you were chasing with helicopters to try and get rid of elk, for example, I think the public would be rioting in the streets.

We'd like to see the return of native predators, like wolves, like mountain lions, bears into these landscapes, because these are the natural predators of wild horses. In cases where natural solutions can be the solution, that's what we prefer.

CT: Great. And Senator Boehner, let's go to you.

BB: Hopefully, we can all agree that we want to avoid these massive roundups. So of course, the BLM does have a legal requirement to have this multiple use mandate. So I mean, if we're going to talk about getting rid of livestock, I'd suggest you might have to change the federal law in order to do that.

But short of those changes, I think that what we'd be looking at in the legislature is things like fertility control, things like doing these management principles before it gets to a crisis point where you have to have these massive roundups. And so that's what we're exploring right now.

For example, our Honor Farm has a program where inmates will help break these horses and adopt them out – it's been very successful working to make sure that the BLM can comply with its multiple use mandate. Once again, so we don't have this sort of escalating situation where the wild horses go un-managed, and that's a significant difference between wild horses and wildlife and livestock. The tools that we have and the BLM has to manage wild horses are relatively unsophisticated. We have a Game and Fish Department that helps manage wildlife to make sure they don't get overpopulated. Livestock has a rancher or lessee, in the case of our public lands, that is actively involved in managing those animals, which in turn, help manage the natural resources that we all depend on for our livelihoods. Hopefully, if we're looking for ways to agree, I think we can hopefully all agree that we can have a more sophisticated, more consistent management of these horses.

CT: Suzanne, I'll toss it to you.

SR: To Senator Boner’s point, thank you for supporting fertility control. I think it is an area where everyone can agree that is a solution for managing the horses in the wild, and stopping these massive roundups that are inhumane, traumatic and they're piling horses into this vast holding system. That holding system is collapsing, and there are disease outbreaks. There's a whole issue there, but we can agree they should be humanely managed in the wild.

Where it's falling down is in two areas. One, is the BLM’s continued reliance on these helicopter roundups. And then the other is balance and proportion. The whole system is geared to prioritizing livestock grazing on the public lands. On BLM land in Wyoming, over 17 million acres are grazed by livestock, whereas the horses are on less than 4 million acres. So we have a very small amount of land relatively where the wild horses that are federally protected are allowed to live. And then within that amount of land, most of the forage is allocated to the livestock. And you get these artificially low population limits for wild horses as a result of that imbalance. And then you have the system of rounding up the horses every four years and removing them – the whole thing doesn't work.

One solution is creating a fair balance of resources within the designated wild horse habitat so that we can sustain larger and healthier wild horse populations, and then managing them toward true ecological balance, which is the BLM requirement by creating natural systems where we do have predators.

And one final point, the horses are federally protected. The Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act mandates that the BLM protect wild horses and burros. Livestock grazing on public land is a discretionary activity. So we're not talking about affecting livestock grazing across the West. We're talking about a very small amount of habitat, where wild horses live, and getting some better balance in resource allocation within the habitat as part of the bigger solution to managing wild horses.

CT: Christi, let's get your input.

CC: I think that Wyoming is taking a proactive stance in that they are working with the BLM, but also our legislature is taking an active interest. It is about balance. Wyoming is traditionally an agricultural state, we also have a lot of oil and gas. I don't think in the past things have been managed as well as they could have been. But I think that we're on the right track to seeing better management, and that's evidenced by the BLM’s willingness to work with our group in implementing some fertility control projects.

I'd also like to point out though, that this idea that predators can have an impact is a bit far-fetched. In my opinion, we only have to look at the Wind River Reservation to understand that fully. I mean, they have a great management program for wolves and bears, and there is a thriving population of grizzly bears and wolves and mountain lions on the Wind River Reservation tribal holdings, and yet their wild horse numbers are considerably higher than what the rest of the state is. And the predation is there. But it's not to the extent that it needs to be, so we have to look at the whole picture. We have to look at everything and we have to consider that yes, predation is going to help but it's not at all a solution. Fertility control is going to help, but it is not at all a solution.

And then I think the final thing I'd like to point out is that specifically with BLM lands, the Federal Land Policy Management Act does designate some federal grazing, and that's legally mandated by the Bureau of Land Management and private lands are to be managed for multiple use. And that does include mineral extraction, it includes grazing. Even if we don't appreciate those uses of our public lands, it is there. And so reaching out and saying, “How can we include you in the ownership of this land?” versus, “We don't want you here or we don't want those things happening.” And we're seeing a lot of people who actually really enjoy the wild horses in those industries. They just want to see them managed better.

To listen to the full version of this ‘I Respectfully Disagree’ conversation click here

Caitlin Tan is the Energy and Natural Resources reporter based in Sublette County, Wyoming. Since graduating from the University of Wyoming in 2017, she’s reported on salmon in Alaska, folkways in Appalachia and helped produce 'All Things Considered' in Washington D.C. She formerly co-hosted the podcast ‘Inside Appalachia.' You can typically find her outside in the mountains with her two dogs.
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