Where the Bureau of Land Management does not reign, it’s the wild west
ALTURAS, Calif.; VIRGINIA CITY, Nevada––Two hundred miles and strategic worlds apart, on either side of the California/Nevada border, side-by-side experiments are underway in how to most effectively prevent wild horses from being sold to slaughter when the range they inhabit is not under the jurisdiction of the U.S. federal Bureau of Land Management.
But the experiments, one relying on legislation and the other on equine birth control, were not really intended to be experiments.
The differing California and Nevada approaches are both promoted by the American Wild Horse Campaign, and were intended to do essentially the same thing.
Buying time for birth control
Both projects aim at keeping wild horses from being removed from the range and trucked to Mexico or Canada to be killed, while buying time for birth control applications to stabilize or reduce horse numbers.
The experimental aspect originates from neither project having evolved as the American Wild Horse Campaign had hoped several years ago.
The outcome is that the fate of nearly 1,000 wild horses who were removed in October 2018 from the Devil’s Garden Plateau Wild Horse Territory within the Modoc National Forest may depend on the passage and application of a pending state bill, California AB 128, which the American Wild Horse Campaign endorses, but which the organizations Political Animals and California Horsemen’s Alliance believe will backfire.
From the Devil’s Garden to cryptocurrency
What becomes of about 3,000 more wild horses still at large in the Devil’s Garden Plateau Wild Horse Territory may also depend on whether AB 128 passes and how it is subsequently interpreted by the courts.
The fate of about 3,000 wild horses on 67,000 acres of the Virginia Range owned by the cryptocurrency company Blockchains, meanwhile, appears to depend most immediately on whether American Wild Horse Campaign volunteers can dart enough mares with PZP anti-fertility treatments to keep the population from expanding.
Also of concern is the longterm stability of Blockchains as the landowner. The technology of cryptocurrency itself is barely ten years old, and the use of cryptocurrency is highly controversial, likely to be much more closely regulated in coming years than it has been so far.
BLM: partial protection vs. none
Wild horses on Bureau of Land Management property have since 1971 been managed under Wild & Free-Roaming Horses & Burros Act.
The Wild & Free-Roaming Horses & Burros Act more-or-less guarantees wild equines the right to exist on BLM range, subject to restrictions on their numbers, alongside cattle and sheep pastured by ranchers who lease grazing rights.
Annual budget riders attached to Interior Department appropriations bills ensure that Bureau of Land Management horses cannot be sold to slaughter, at least not directly.
Other federal agencies, state governments, Native American tribes, and private landowners, however, may round up and sell wild horses, who are not protected as wildlife, at will.
Several generations of Modoc National Forest administrators have voluntarily managed the Devil’s Garden Plateau Wild Horse Territory under Bureau of Land Management guidelines.
But the officially designated appropriate management level of 206 to 402 wild horses, set in 2013, had been exceeded by more than tenfold as of October 2018, critically stressing the carrying capacity of the habitat in the estimation of Modoc National Forest supervisor Amanda McAdams.
McAdams favors “fertility treatment using [the contraceptive] PZP,” she explained then, along with “actions to adjust herd sex ratio to 50/50,” which would slow the rate of horse reproduction.
But the Forest Service had already cut back permitted livestock grazing by 55% in 2014, 50% in 2015, and more than 50% in 2016, triggering litigation from ranchers in 2017. A provisional out-of-court settlement reached in May 2018 required McAdams to steadily reduce the wild horse population and issue regular reports on her progress.
The American Wild Horse Campaign, meanwhile, has since March 2014 argued in litigation against a proposed “correction” of Devil’s Garden Wild Horse Territory mapping which would allegedly facilitate a “plan to eliminate about 40 square miles of territory and reduce the horse population by 80%,” according to an Associated Press summary of the case.
The error, made in 1991, inadvertently merged two separate wild horse ranges designated in 1975, incorporating about 23,000 acres between them that were not designated wild horse range.
The American Wild Horse Campaign has repeatedly charged that the error correction and other Forest Service actions to reduce the Devil’s Garden wild horse herds are linked to schemes to sell wild horses to kill buyers, who would export the horses to slaughter abroad.
Proposition 6 & AB 128
Technically this would violate Proposition 6, the California Prohibition of Horse Slaughter and Sale of Horsemeat for Human Consumption Act of 1998.
The 1998 law could be enforced, however, only if evidence could be obtained before the horses leave California jurisdiction of specific intent on the part of the Forest Service, horse transporters, or horse buyers to send the horses to slaughter for human consumption.
The 1998 law does not address slaughter for animal consumption. Horses killed for animal consumption are usually shot where they are, then transported as carcasses.
At urging of the American Wild Horse Campaign and the Humane Society of the U.S., California State Assembly member Todd Gloria (D-San Diego) on December 4, 2018 introduced Assembly Bill 128, purportedly to reinforce Proposition 6.
Political Animals and the California Horsemen’s Alliance, who led the campaign to pass Proposition 6, contends AB 128 will do just the opposite, but told Gloria on April 4, 2019 that they did not even learn of the existence of AB 128 until the last days of March 2018.
The alleged “Not OK” corral
Lending impetus to efforts to rush AB 128 to passage, reported Scott Sonner of Associated Press on January 16, 2019, “The U.S. Forest Service has built a new corral for wild horses in Northern California, which could allow it to bypass federal restrictions and sell the animals for slaughter. The agency acknowledged in court filings in a potentially precedent-setting legal battle that it built the pen for mustangs gathered in the fall on national forest land along the California-Nevada border because of restrictions on such sales at other federal holding facilities.
Fate of 932 horses up in the air
“The agency denies claims by horse advocates it has made up its mind to sell the more than 250 horses for slaughter,” Sonner added. “But it also says it may have no choice because of the high cost of housing the animals and continued ecological impacts it claims overpopulated herds are having on federal rangeland.”
Of the 932 horses removed from the Devil’s Garden in October 2018, about 260 were taken to the new corral, Sonner said. The other 650 horses were transported to Bureau of Land Management holding pens in Susanville, California, where they remain under BLM jurisdiction.
What will eventually be done with any of the horses is still a question mark, and likely to remain a question mark for quite some time. Neither Proposition 6 nor AB 128 includes built-in foolproof answers.
Gunfight in the statehouse
Wrote Political Animals president Sherry DeBoer to Gloria, trying to put the brakes on AB 128, “As the original drafters and campaign directors for Proposition 6, which outlawed the slaughter of horses for human consumption in 1998, we must strongly oppose Assembly Bill 128. This bill will weaken Proposition 6 by reducing the penalty for horse slaughter human consumption from a felony (as provided in Proposition 6) to a simple misdemeanor.
“Reducing the penalty for horse slaughter from a felony to a misdemeanor is not only dysfunctional public policy, we don’t think it is permitted under California law,” DeBoer continued, hinting at a court battle if AB 128 passes.
“Proposition 6 is an initiative statute and specifically did not provide for amendment by the Legislature,” DeBoer added. “Therefore any amendments impacting Proposition 6 may only be done by subsequent ballot measure.
“We honor your interest in the protection of horses, but believe that you have been given inaccurate information by those who brought this bill to you,” DeBoer finished.
Who’s the sheriff?
Wrote California Horsemen’s Alliance director Gini Richardson to Gloria, “From one of your press releases available online, ‘AB 128 protects wild and domestic horses from slaughter by making it illegal to have, import, export, sell, buy, give away, or accept any horse in California for any commercial purpose. Violations of this being punishable by a misdemeanor.’
“Who is going to enforce, or ever investigate, your new lessened misdemeanor penalty? Agents of the Food & Ag Department do not have law enforcement powers,” Richardson pointed out.
“As an original member of the California Equine Council that worked for the passage of Prop 6, and also wrote or worked on the other codes that your bill seeks to change or add to other codes,” Richardson concluded, “I have to point out that the changes your bill is asking for already exist.”
The outcome for the Modoc National Forest wild horses would appear to be many chapters from resolution.
They shoot horses with PZP
The Virginia Range wild horse situation, however, took a turn toward resolution in mid-April 2019, after “Nevada state assembly minority leader Jim Wheeler (R-Gardnerville) convinced Democratic governor Steve Sisolak to restore a program to enable volunteer [PZP] darters to work with the Nevada Department of Agriculture,” wrote Reno Gazette Journal reporter Benjamin Spillman.
“The previous darting program fell apart on October 25, 2017,” Spillman explained, “when Nevada Department of Agriculture officials terminated a privately funded agreement that enabled volunteers associated with the American Wild Horse Campaign to manage horse issues on the Virginia Range. At the time, agriculture officials accused the volunteers of failing to live up to their end of the deal. Volunteers denied the accusation.
No takers for free mustangs
“After terminating the agreement, the agriculture department board voted to offer the approximately 3,000 free-roaming horses on the range at no cost to anyone willing and able to manage them,” Spillman wrote.
But, Spillman said, “There were no takers,” contrary to the common belief of horse advocates that killer buyers lurk just behind every clump of sagebrush.
Reality is that the prices paid for horses to be slaughtered are so low, and the supply of horses cast off by the horse use industries so high, that if a killer buyer has to catch horses before trucking them away, there is no profit in the effort.
“Every mare on the range is pregnant”
As many as 400 wild horse foals have been born on the Virginia Range since the original PZP darting campaign was suspended.
Worse, “Right now, every mare on the range is pregnant,” American Wild Horse Campaign volunteer Deb Walker told Spillman.
The volunteer-managed PZP darting effort resumed, Spillman summarized, after “Wheeler and Jeffrey Berns, founder of Blockchains LLC, met with Sisolak” to explain their concern that the horse population on the Blockchains property might double in another year.
Unlike the horses on Bureau of Land Management grazing allotments, “free-range horses in the Virginia range are considered feral or ‘estray’ livestock and fall under state jurisdiction,” Spillman explained. “Prior to agreements with volunteer groups, horses rounded up from the range were eligible for auction where they could be purchased for slaughter.”
All the horses to be darted?
Added Geoff Dornan of the Carson City Nevada Appeal, “Wheeler said Berns has guaranteed his company will ensure all the horses are darted regardless of the budget.”
That concerned British Columbia wild horse advocate Anthony Marr, a longtime advocate of wild horse contraception “in the absence of the natural [horse] predators,” he specified to ANIMALS 24-7, “but if a specific project targets all the horses, then I cannot support it.
“The ideal long term solution,” Marr believes, “is to restore the predators in full, plus removing the cattle [from shared range].
“Control mechanism has been removed”
“Nature used to be a perfect system of self regulation, but no longer,” Marr said. “The control mechanism –– the predators, principally the wolf and the puma –– have been surgically removed. Left to crippled nature alone, population control of the wild horse would be by starvation, complete with gross and often irreversible damage to the delicate semi-desert environment, which would lower the carrying capacity even more, thus allowing for even fewer horses, leading to even worse roundups.
“Whether PZP, SpayVac or Gonacon is the best [birth control] technique is a minor point,” Marr continued. “The major point is whether equine birth control is a necessity, and it absolutely is. Birth control opponents’ mantra ‘leave equine population regulation to nature and thus “do nothing’ is not an option.”