By Scott Sonner, Associated Press
May 2, 2016
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Nevada director wants to free up more federal rangeland for livestock grazing this summer by rounding up 4,000 wild horses in Elko County— more than were gathered across 10 Western states combined last year.
BLM Nevada Director John Ruhs, Gov. Brian Sandoval and state wildlife officials say removing the mustangs from four herd-management areas in Elko County near the Utah line would also benefit the greater sage grouse.
"Current horse populations hinder the multiple uses of public lands," Nevada Agriculture Director Jim Barbee said. He anticipates that without the roundups, anywhere from a 25 percent to a total reduction in grazing will be necessary in some areas, resulting in as much as $1.8 million in damages to Elko County's economy.
Conservationists say the call for more roundups is a misguided attempt to placate ranchers at the expense of horses and grouse. Cattle do far more damage than mustangs to the drought-stricken range and the imperiled bird, they say.
Nevada is home to nearly 28,000 wild horses — more than half of the 47,000 estimated in 10 western states, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming.
The Bureau of Land Management argues the range can sustain less than half that many — about 12,000 in Nevada and 26,000 nationally.
Ruhs estimated in an April 13 letter to the agency's headquarters that it would cost about $4 million to remove about 4,000 animals in southeast Elko County stretching to near the Utah line. "Some of the allotments/pastures within the impacted area will need to be closed to livestock grazing in 2016 and into the future to limit further damage to these ecosystems or until appropriate management of the wild horses has taken place,'" Ruhs wrote.
Sandoval warned last week that if the Interior Department refuses to adequately fund the program, "the state will pursue all legal options to protect our local producers and communities."
Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nevada, said in a letter to Secretary Sally Jewell on Friday that he's disappointed the Bureau of Land Management has not responded to a request he and others made in November for an update on herds across the West.
"Over the past few years, many ranchers have already taken reductions in their grazing allotments, yet horse populations have only increased, not decreased, over that time," Heller wrote. "It is unfair for local ranchers to be penalized for BLM's inaction."
The Bureau of Land Management gathered 7,242 horses nationally in 2012; 4,064 in 2013; 1,689 in 2014; and 3,093 last fiscal year. It removed about 1,000 in Oregon in November, about 125 in southern Nevada in February, 54 in Utah in March, and this summer plans to remove about 535 in Wyoming and 300 in Utah.
But the agency currently plans no large-scale roundups in Nevada — or anywhere else — through the end of September because of budget shortfalls driven largely by the cost of housing more than 45,000 mustangs now in government corrals and pastures at a lifetime cost of $48,000 per animal.
The Nevada Association of Counties, Nevada Farm Bureau and others filed a lawsuit last year to force the government to step up roundups, but a U.S. judge in Reno dismissed the case.
"Unfortunately, the removal of cattle from areas where horse populations are significantly over (appropriate management levels) does not alleviate the impacts to native species, including sage grouse," Nevada Cattlemen's Association President David Stix Jr. said last week.
But Suzanne Roy, director of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, insists, "We don't have an excess horse problem, we have a management problem."
"The BLM is scapegoating wild horses instead of addressing the true causes of range degradation and threats to sage grouse," she said.