“We Don’t Count Foals”
It’s July. Outside Reno, Nevada, in the baking desert, a tiny mustang foal tries to lie down to get the sleep her growing bones needs. But there is no shade; the sun burns as relentlessly as the circling flies. She folds her stick-like legs, and thuds to the hard manure-spotted earth. The air temperature is 105, but the desert ground is over 160. Minutes later, the foal struggles back up without sleeping. Her mother is thirsty. There are over seventy wild horses sharing one trough of water. The mare can’t fight her way to the water as often as she needs. Her milk is compromised.
The foal fights for life, but in a few days, dies.
“The extreme 105-degree temperature overwhelmed me within minutes,” said Marjorie Lynne Wagner, advocate, of her visit on July 1 to the Palomino Valley Holding Facility. “When I tested the ground temperature with a new Ryobi infrared thermometer, I was shocked to see how high it read… up to 164 degrees.”
Thousands of public pleas to provide shade and more water for the horses at Palomino Valley and other facilities went unanswered this summer. Jetara Séhart, executive director of Native Wild Horse Protection, offered the Bureau of Land Management funds and materials to erect shelters for the captured mustangs, but as July’s sweltering days dragged on, there was no response. Instead of shade, the BLM installed sprinklers, which the horses studiously avoided as seen in this press release.
Unhappy with the government’s response, advocates planned a “Gimme Shelter” protest for July 20 to draw attention to the suffering horses. When they arrived at Palomino, they were met with threats and told their cars would be towed.
“You need to play nice,” BLM special agents reportedly said. It was insinuated that more protests and public scrutiny could lead to the entire facility being shuttered to the public, like what happened at Broken Arrow.
The protest was moved to Carson City.
Until 2010, the public was welcome at Broken Arrow, another Nevada mustang and burro holding facility. Most of the almost $80 million annual budget of BLM is spent on the “long term holding” of over 50,000 once-wild mustangs and burros.
Author Terri Farley toured the facility that year and was shocked to see a “tiny emaciated foal standing at the fence line, seeming to plead for help… I was shocked at his condition.”
“I never did witness any shelter to protect near two thousand horses, foals and burros,” said advocate Cat Kindsfather, who photographed that foal the day before its death.
The dead foals are removed from the pens, and their bodies discarded in secret locations. Their deaths are secret, because dead babies are not counted among casualties of the Wild Horse and Burro program.
Why? The official answer is that the foals are too young to have been branded. (A freeze brand is applied to all horses and burros once captured from the wild. The brands serve as identification for each horse.) The obvious beneficial side effect of this policy is that the official death count of the round-ups is kept artificially low. Farley has dubbed them “Phantom Foals”.
“If you are managing the horses properly you need to account for all deaths as these are necessary indicators as to the standard of care,” points out Neda DeMayo, director of Return to Freedom, a 300-acre California sanctuary that houses 400 mustangs, some in intact family bands. De Mayo and others, despite their sanctuaries’ already strained resources, recently outbid killers for mustangs that mysteriously ended up at an auction mixed with Indian mounts, at the Fallon, NV auction last month. For decades, the non-profits and citizens have been left with the clean-up job for a problem artificially created by the wild Horse and Burro Program.
“No animals have passed since July 2,” Palomino Valley Director Jeb Beck said to advocates at a recent press event. But many no longer accept the agency’s numbers.
“We’re concerned about the foal deaths,” Séhart said. “There were 2,000 wild horses at Palomino Valley. The numbers there keep changing mysteriously… now there are 1700. But no horses are dying?”
“If this is what we can see, then what’s going on behind closed doors?”
The horses have their enemies: the corporate ranchers, the oil and gas guys; everybody wants the public lands, now more than ever since “energy independence” is a popular refrain. The Ruby Pipeline that cuts the US out of all profit, while we bear the risk; the frackers, the oil explorers, shale oil diggers, uranium miners, and even the military would all rather operate without having to worry about a bunch of horses dying all over the place. Poisoned water, destroyed ranges and fences: the mustangs are the potential canaries in the coal mine that is the rape of the west.
The semi trucks carrying poisons in and money out don’t want to slow down for a bunch of horses on the road. But most articles that reach the public don’t point to the corporations or the ranchers, but instead scapegoat the horses and burros, and are stuffed full of tired old facts and figures. Despite outside scientific censure the BLM keeps spouting the same numbers year after year despite the thousands of horses whose lives are shattered with the round ups each season. In the last twelve months over 3,660 horses and burros were captured, their future uncertain.
“The Wild Horse and Burro Program has not used scientifically rigorous methods to estimate the population sizes of horses and burros, to model the effects of management actions on the animals, or to assess the availability and use of forage on rangelands,” said the National Research Council’s Report. The product of almost two years worth of investigation and research, it devastatingly details the failure of the BLM to manage the federally protected wild horses in its care.
Reporter Andrew Cohen who has followed the issue for years put the report in regular language. “There is no scientific basis for removing thousands of the nation’s horses from public lands and placing them in expensive and dangerous enclosures. There is no scientific basis for ignoring or minimizing safe fertility controls. There is no scientific basis for claiming that the relatively small number of horses do more damage to our lands than do the vast number of cattle and sheep who graze on it at vastly under-market “welfare ranching” rates.”
Off the record, BLM employees admit “Nobody knows how many horses are out there.”
Congressman Raul Grijalva, touring the facility with the press last month, agreed, calling the BLM “a very broken management system” that is “not functional.”
“When advocates are passionate about an issue — as advocates for the wild horses are — sometimes unfortunately you dismiss that as being ‘a point of view,’ the congressman said. “I think what the academy did is validate it.”
Towards the end of August the BLM held a public meeting to discuss whether the mustangs at Palomino and other holding facilities required shelter, and if so, gather information on how to proceed.
Some of the advocates were encouraged that the agency was finally responding. Others said action was needed, not a discussion, pointing out that in the wild, mustangs have the freedom to seek shade. “It’s ridiculous to question whether a baby horse needs shelter on a 106-degree day. The BLM requires mustang and burro adopters to provide a 3-sided shelter. It’s a no-brainer.”
Deaths of foals are not counted; herds are not actually or factually counted; photographers are fenced away from entire pens of horses at holding facilities; and kept miles away from round-up trap sites…
A report almost two years in the making is still not acted on half a year later. Facilities that have received negative publicity, like Broken Arrow, have been closed to the public…
Thousands of rounded-up horses with no adoption market end up every year in long term holding are on private lands. A gal who calls herself Pioneer Woman is among the few with lucrative government contracts in the millions, to run mustangs on their properties with no oversight. The BLM’s budget is 70 million dollars and most of it is spent on round ups and long term holding costs…
Thousands of signatures on a petition were counted by the BLM as one public response…
Wild Mustang Robin, a twelve year old, traveled to Capitol Hill with 250,000 signed letters, asking for humane treatment for America’s mustangs. She was told she could not deliver her letters, and she was ridiculed, but the next day, she prevailed.
A court battle over reporter’s rights to document the roundups has gained support from thirteen press organizations and overturned a lower court’s decision: “I have spent the last four years trying to tell the story of the wild horse on the range, during capture and in holding,” stated Laura Leigh, plaintiff. “I have been met with restrictions at every turn.”
Sally Jewell, the new head of the Department of Interior, has said nothing specific about her plans for the program. Her predecessor, Ken Salazar, stepped down a few months after threatening a reporter.
Despite lots of talk of transparency, the BLM is still opaque. The hot light of public scrutiny and dissatisfaction may be beginning to sweat the agency – though still not as painfully as the desert sun on the backs of the mustangs at Palomino Valley.
*italics by author
correction 9/24 Top photo was incorrectly attributed, photo is courtesy Cat Kindsfather. Apologies!