Last Friday at 5:33 p.m. ET, as thousands of captured wild horses sweltered in punishing heat in government holding pens, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) issued a press release announcing plans to round up 1,300 more wild horses from the West over the next eight weeks.
In the pubic relations world, late Friday afternoon is the time to release bad news. And the BLM's announcement is bad news indeed for wild horses and American taxpayers.
Why? Because it continues the federal government's "business as usual" approach to wild horse management, which just last month, an independent scientific panel at the National Academies (NAS) characterized as "expensive and unproductive for the BLM and the public it serves."
Wild horses are national symbols of freedom, and the irony of stockpiling more mustangs in government holding facilities (50,000) than remain free in the wild (32,000) was not lost on the NAS panel. Dr. Guy Palmer, panel chair, told the Associated Press, "No one really wants to see more horses in long-term holding just from an economic viewpoint. Secondly, this is not the vision that is associated with what the public wants to see with the horses on these wild lands."
After a nearly two-year review that the BLM itself commissioned and funded, the NAS recommended against further roundups and in favor of managing wild horses on the range with fertility control. Despite this, the BLM is galloping ahead with more roundups, as the agency's carefully timed Friday afternoon press release revealed.
In May, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell told The Denver Post that she would look to the NAS report to guide her approach to reforming the BLM program. Today -- 50 days after the release of the NAS report -- she is still reviewing the NAS findings, according to her recent Congressional testimony.
But, as the BLM's summer roundup schedule reveals, Secretary Jewell is fiddling while Rome burns. While she is "reviewing" the report, the BLM will bring 1,300 more wild horses into a holding system that is at already at capacity and -- at a daily cost to American taxpayers of $120,000 a day -- threatening fiscal collapse.
Savvy to the PR implications, the BLM is spinning the new roundup schedule as an "emergency" response to drought conditions in the West. But the agency's own handbook classifies droughts not as emergencies, but as events that "can be detected in advance and are managed through the normal planning process."
Like the stockpiling of thousands of captured wild horses in holding pens, where they are forced to endure merciless sun and heat without benefit of shelter, the BLM's "emergency" drought roundups are a symptom of a much larger program at this agency -- the fundamental failure to humanely manage horses on the range.
The NAS said it straight up: "Tools already exist for BLM to address many challenges." But the agency is under-utilizing available tools, which include humane fertility control to keep herds in check.
With regard to drought, proactive range improvements -- done for livestock all the time -- would ensure wild horses have suitable access to water in the vast majority of areas. Remember, wild horses live on 26 million acres of BLM land while cattle graze on 165 million acres where they outnumber wild horses by at least 50-1. Yet you don't hear of the BLM conducting cattle roundups...
BLM spokesperson Tom Gorey told the Los Angeles Times that "the opponents of our horse gathers face a daunting question of ethics. On one hand, they imply that if Mother Nature kills off the horses from thirst or starvation, that's OK. But if we intervene to save these horses, that's unacceptable."
Let's be clear: the BLM is intervening to "save" wild horses because they've failed to effectively manage them on the range. They need "saving" from conditions the BLM is chiefly responsible for. In other words, they've created the "emergency" and are now using it as an opportunity to justify roundups.
Seen in this light, the BLM's decision to issue this news on Friday evening is not surprising.
Secretary Jewell clearly has her work cut out for her. But she will have to do more than "review" the findings of the NAS if she is to change the BLM and its "business as usual" practices. The American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign remains hopeful that she is up to the task, because the lives of tens of thousands of mustangs and burros -- and the future of this unique American legacy -- depend on it.