Clouds gathering over BLM horse program by Willis Lamm
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 2009:
Most wild horse advocates recognize that the wild horses roaming our public lands require some degree of management. Herd population growth, loss of predators, intrusion by other land uses, extreme weather, and the horses’ inability to migrate to new ranges due to human-made barriers require some intervention so that the horses remain in balance with range resources. It is in the application of horse management techniques that the Bureau of Land Management has demonstrated both competent resourcefulness and gross incompetence.
The recent roundup of the iconic wild horse Cloud and his herd in the Pryor Mountains of Wyoming and southern Montana have provided a shining example of incompetence. There were no major injuries to either horses or humans, according to the BLM, but videos posted to YouTube showed horses who were unnecessarily stressed, limping, and frightened, and local news coverage described incidents and procedures which could have had disastrous consequences.
The Pryor Range horses are believed to be direct descendants from some of the first Spanish horses brought to the Americas, relatively little mixed with other domestic horses. The BLM initially announced that it would capture all 188 mustangs dwelling on the 38,000-acre Pryor Range. About 70 would be offered for adoption. The rest would be released, after giving a contraceptive vaccine to most of the mares.
The roundup was halted, after a week of intense protest by horse advocates nationwide, with 147 horses corraled, 57 put up for adoption, and about 25 family bands left on the range.
The BLM helicopter contractor for the Pryor Mountains round-up was Dave Cattoor.
Once, while observing a relatively safe and sane round-up in the Buck & Bald Horse Management Area of Nevada, I asked Cattoor why this particular gather was going so smoothly when a month earlier a gather at the Sheldon Wildlife Refuge was embroiled in chaos. The answer Cattoor gave was simple: “It’s the contract.”
Cattoor and others in his business perform to the specifications set forth in the gather contracts that they accept. At Buck & Bald, the BLM wasn’t hellbent to bring in every horse. The horses were moved in slowly. Bands with young foals were left alone. Horses who showed lameness were left alone. Cattoor was not asked to bring in old horses, and if some arrived in the corral, enough tail hair was cut so that the helicopter pilot could recognize them as being released after they were returned to the range.
Apparently the specifications for gathering Cloud’s herd were far different than what we in Nevada recognize as appropriate for safe and sane gathers of wild horses.
But perhaps far more telling than the gather specifications for the Pryor Range roundup was the BLM’s attitude toward observers.
Gathers can be dangerous, so it is appropriate for the BLM to not allow people to just wander around during gather activities. Someone in the wrong place can spook the horses and get them and the gather staff hurt.
However, in Nevada the BLM customarily makes accommodations for responsible observers to see and report on gather activities. We stay at safe vantage points on the range that are designated by BLM. At the sorting corrals we usually find a spot atop a transport or water truck where we can see the whole operation and not spook the horses. While we may not agree with many of BLM’s gather decisions, the Nevada BLM’s reasonable openness instills some confidence that the gathers here are not organized catastrophes.
I was not at the Pryor gather. However from first person accounts, videos, audio recordings and other evidence, including mainstream news coverage, the BLM’s whole approach to this gather was faulty. Instead of making adjustments and improvements where warranted, it appears that they turned this event into a covert operation and displayed a hostile attitude against some of the private citizens and advocates present.
Having been a public employee myself for 30 years, I have to say that the snips of recorded conversations that I heard were totally improper.
The general attitude within the Department of Interior, of which BLM is a subordinate bureau, has fostered a new round of legal actions brought by private citizens and advocacy groups. There is evidence that some of the data upon which many of the Department’s past management decisions were based were altered. It is therefore reasonable for citizens to question the validity of reports and studies used to justify BLM’s current activities, especially when they simply look wrong. In fact our Founding Fathers considered it to be our responsibility as citizens to hold our government and its agencies accountable. However the Department of Interior has apparently chosen to be confrontational with the American public rather than engage concerned critics and adjust its policies where appropriate. In this writer’s opinion, the present conduct of the Department of Interior serves as an example of bureaucracy at its worst.
Ironically, America’s wild horses are just among the more immediate victims of such tunnel-visioned bureaucracy. Over the long term it is likely the Department of Interior and its subordinate agencies that will suffer most. Aside from a growing pile of lawsuits, Congress is becoming increasingly tired of flawed policies that rack up unnecessary costs and at the same time produce anger among the American constituency.
If the executive branch of our federal government doesn’t drag the Department of Interior onto a more appropriate path, Congress will. If one believes the lessons of history, Congress’ solutions may be far more burdensome on the Department than any prompt and appropriate corrections that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar or President Barack Obama might impose.
Advocates across the world feel badly about the mistreatment of Cloud and his famous herd. However the Department of Interior and the BLM may have reached the proverbial bottom with respect to horse management policies. Surely they have no other direction to go than “up.”
Horseback Magazine has posted a story about the Cloud roundup in which BLM spokesman Tom Gorey was quoted as saying, “The Cloud Foundation is not a credible source for information.”
Scores of Department of Interior and/or Bureau of Land Management personnel have been exposed and often indicted during the past three years for altering data, corruption involving millions of dollars, and even accepting drugs, sex and gifts from energy companies.
As Chris Frates of Politico.com recently summarized, “Interior has [also] been rocked by ties to the dirty dealings of convicted lobbyist Jack AbramoffŠThe department’s former #2 official, Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles, served 10 months in prison for lying to a Senate committee about his relationship with Abramoff, who is in prison.”
Interior Inspector General Earl Devaney in December 2008 reported of Julie MacDonald, a former deputy assistant secretary who oversaw the Fish & Wildlife Service, “Her heavy-handedness has cast doubt on nearly every Endangered Species Act decision issued during her tenure,” which ran from 2002 until May 2007.
I find it ironic that a spokesman for what could be reasonably be described as the most incredible department in our government’s history would cast dispersions upon an established non-profit group for its criticism of the agency.
Willis Lamm, a retired fire service officer, is now president of Least Resistance Training Concepts, a nonprofit organization that works with various agencies. Lamm is a member of the Lyon County, Nevada Advisory Board for Wildlife, vice-chair of the Lyon County Animal Control Advisory Board, and communications officer for the Alliance of Wild Horse Advocates.