Preliminary Pancake Complex Wild Horse Gather Environmental Assessment (EA)
Re: Preliminary Pancake Complex Wild Horse Gather Environmental Assessment (EA)
As a wildlife ecologist and wild horse advocate who had observed the wild horses of the Pancake Complex over a period of many years, I submit the following comments to your proposed wild horse gather EA and urge that you do an Environmental Impact Statement because of the very serious impact your proposed action would cause, both to the wild horses and to the ecosystem of the Complex.
The Proposed Action is to remove deemed excess wild horses over a ten-year period from within and outside the Pancake Herd Management Area (HMA), Sand Springs West HMA, as well as Jakes Wash Herd Area (HA) where BLM has decided not to manage for any wild horses, even though Jakes Wash had wild horses in 1971 making it a legal wild horse habitat. Together all these areas are referred to as the “Pancake Complex”. The proposed wild horse gather would also eliminate “excess” wild horses from the US Forest Service legal wild horse Monte Cristo Wild Horse Territory. It would take place over the next ten years to achieve very low and substandard “Appropriate Management Levels” that favor livestock, mining, oil and gas leasing, and other exploitive interests on the public lands and within the wild horses’ legal habitat. The extreme reduction being proposed by Ely BLM would have a devastating impact on the wild horse populations, or herds, jeopardizing their genetic viability and upsetting their natural ecological adaptations that have been many generations in the making. These reductions would also disrupt the horses’ social structures, destroying band units and herd dynamics, ancestral traditions vital for survival, and equilibria that attune each particular unique group of wild horses to the particular unique ecosystem they and their ancestors inhabit and have inhabited for generations dating back at least to the mid-1800s and in a harmonious way.
The proposed major reduction of wild horses would produce negative ecological impacts by upsetting beneficial relationships with other species, as are caused by the horses’ building of soils and dispersing of intact seeds of a great variety through their droppings. As a consequence of the foregoing, the horses generally enhance the life community. Also of great importance: Wild horses act as major reducers of dry flammable vegetation, or what becomes such later in the year. The major reduction of wild horses proposed by the EA would alarmingly increase the risk of catastrophic wildfires in many places. Often wild horses reach areas that are inaccessible to other herbivores including domestic livestock. After their removal, lightning-sparked fires could occur more frequently. These are likely to be quite extensive, e.g. the Rush Peak Fires started in the Twin Peaks W.H. HMA in NE California in September, 2012 occurred shortly after a major BLM wild horse and burro roundup the removed most of the equids from this ca. 800,000-acre area. It ended up burning 315,000 acres and was caused by lightning combusting vegetation on a remote peak. Another important factor is that by building more moisture-retaining soils wild horses bolster watersheds. Much of this involves their balancing all the ruminant herbivores that are overly promoted by people. Truly, wild horses create moisture conditions that prevent serious wildfires and benefit a myriad of species.
On page 2 of the EA, the vast acreages contained within the HMAs call into question the extremely low Appropriate Management Levels (AMLs). Looking at the Complex’ namesake Pancake HMA, there are 849,922 acres of legal wild horse habitat here, yet BLM in its unfair RMP has assigned an unjust AML of only 240 to 493 wild horses for an average of 367 horses. Dividing 849,922 by 367 equals 2,316 acres, or 3.6 square miles, per individual wild horse. This AML is clearly outrageous and represents a practically wild-horse-empty HMA! Its implementation would wantonly subvert the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act (WFHBA), which in its Section 2 (c ) defines the wild horse legal areas as “the amount of land necessary to sustain an existing herd or herds of wild free-roaming horses and burros … and which is devoted principally but not necessarily exclusively to their welfare in keeping with the multiple use management concept for the public lands.” I would like to take this opportunity to remind BLM that I have protested these very unfair AMLs as well as grossly inequitable forage allocations for many years.
In the Sand Springs West HMA, there are 157,436 acres (suspiciously down from 168,189 acres reported on March 1, 2019 by BLM), but the assigned AML is only 29 to 49 for an average of 39 wild horses. This means BLM plans to allow on average only one individual wild horse for every 4,037 acres, or 6.3 square miles! For all practical purposes, this would be a wild-horse-empty ecosystem – a legal wild horse HMA in name only, but a real farce as far as being a true implementation of the unanimously passed WFHBA of 1971, which, by the way, will “celebrate” its 50th Anniversary in 2021 – but what would there be to celebrate with such glaring injustices as the above?!
Moving on to Jake’s Wash HA, there are 153,662 legal wild horse acres here, but the BLM has decided to “zero out” this herd – in other words, to totally abandon its duty to preserve wild horses here, as it has done in so many legal Herd Areas for both wild horses and burros. Indeed, according to 2019 Public Land Statistics, there are 77 HAs just in the state of Nevada where the BLM has abandoned the wild horses and burros, subverting their legal rights to adequate natural habitat and the free and natural life that the WFHBA intended – and still intends. But it is up to us American citizens as to whether this law will itself live or die! All totaled the 2019 Public Lands Statistics (USDI) reports BLM having zeroed out a total of 11,168,149 wild horse and wild burro acres – acres legally designated as habitat for these “national heritage” wild horses and burros, yet it has been taken away from them and from the millions of people who want to see them there and fairly treated! Incidentally, 314,281 legal wild horse/burro acres have been transferred out of BLM jurisdiction in Nevada alone per the 2019 report.
The Monte Cristo Wild Horse Territory contains 93,640 acres, but again has been unjustly assigned an AML of only 72 to 120 for an average of 96 wild horses. So, the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest has decided to allow 975 acres, or 1.5 square miles, for every individual wild horse. Though considerably “better” than BLM, still this is outrageous! It is clear that the vast majority of the forage, water, and habitat utilization is going to the cattle and sheep ranchers, etc., and that both the BLM and the USFS are abrogating their responsibility to defend the rights of the wild horses and burros in their legal areas! This kind of unfairness is in line with the kind that operated to exterminate the Native Americans, to cheat them of their rightful territories, to extirpate the buffalo herds upon which they depended, etc. And, so, I ask: Can we people every learn the most important lessons from our past history, or will we only continue blindly to commit the same blundering mistakes due to our uncontrolled greediness and failure to question and to change blind and destructive lifestyles?!
Wild horse populations in the Pancake Complex are increasing annually between 15 and 25% for an average of 20%. I am very suspect of this assertion, but if it were the case, then I would attribute this to the greatly underpopulated habitats to which our government officials have reduced these legal wild horse areas. I feel this is a Big Set Up designed to create a negative view of wild horses as destructive invaders who must be controlled to the maximum and by all means disallowed their just and legal resources. These would be commensurate with truly long-term viable and naturally harmonizing populations. And we should remember in this regard that the 2013 National Research Council report was based on incomplete or doctored data submitted by the various BLM Field Offices and the National BLM office. The blanketing 20% annual increase figure is simply begin plugged into documents that seek to justify the miserable treatment of the wild horses.
Objective scientific investigations of wild horse growth rates refute the 20% claim. In stable wild-horse-containing ecosystems, the rate of increase is much less than 20%, even 5% or less, according to truly objective (rather than tendentious) studies performed in Wyoming during the 1970s (see National Research Council 1980 & 1982 reports on our nation’s wild horse and burro program). I also refer you to the scientific study by M.L. Wolfe, Jr. (1980. Feral Horse Demography … available at http://www.jstor.org/stable/3897882). In his observation in 12 HMAs over a period of two to five years, he documented annual wild horse herd increases of less than 2% with first year survival rates of 50 to 70%. And I also refer you to the extensive study by Gregg, LeBlanc & Johnston (2014. Wild Horse Population Grown, available at http://rtfitchauthor.com/2014/04/28/report-wild-horse-population-growth). Their research, which included an environmental scientist: Johnston who did her thesis on wild horses, found that 50% of foals perish during the first year of life and that the effective annual herd increase due to new foals would be only 10% and that a further decrease in annual growth rate would be caused by adult mortality that typically falls between 8% and 20%. They believed BLM officials were erroneously equating birth rates with population growth rates. BLM reports that annually ca. 5% of wild horses die in their short-term holding facilities and ca. 8% die in their long-term contracted pastures. BLM officials also ignore the wild horses’ ability to self-regulate their population numbers through feedback mechanisms that adjust herd size to their habitat’s carrying capacity. Also, density-dependent inhibition plays a major role in limiting births and increasing natural mortality rates (see http://habitatforhorses.org/an-update-seen-through-the-eyes-of-one-biologist/ as well as: Jenkins & Ashley, 2003, Wild Horse … Ch. 53 IN: Wild Mammals of North America, esp. pp. 1148-1163). Quoting from Jenkins & Ashley, p. 1159: “[Wild] horses and burros are intensively and expensively managed by federal agencies in the United States … [m]uch of this management, however, rests on assumptions about impacts of equids on plant communities and on other herbivores that have not been tested experimentally.” And again on p. 1158: “… the National Research Council  concluded that sociopolitical as well as ecological factors influenced decisions about appropriate management levels … and this appears to be true … many populations of [wild] horses … are well below ecological carrying capacity …” Also as further proof of wild horses’ self-stabilizing ability: Rogovin & Moshkin. 2007. [Autoregulation in mammalian populations and stress: an old theme revisited]. Zhurnal obshchei biologii 2007 68(4): 244-267 (in Russian).
Page 2 & 3 of E.A. continued:
Page 3. Table 1. 2020 population estimate for the Pancake Complex is 2,262 to 3,864 for a mean of 3,063 wild horses. Total acres in Pancake Complex is 1,106,076 acres. AML for Pancake Complex is 361 low end to 638 high end for an average of 500 wild horses. Number of wild horses to be removed are between 1,969 and 3,571 for a mean of 2,770 wild horses. Based on the above figures, currently there are 361 legal wild horse acres, or 0.6 square mile, for every individual wild horse. This is not an overpopulation by any just assessment! Yet, BLM is planning on leaving only one individual wild horse for every 2,212, or 3.5 square miles of their legal HMA habitat in the Pancake Complex as a whole. This would be a clear subversion of the WFHBA! No mention of cattle or sheep or big game numbers or forage consumption is made so that the public considering this document could judge how fairly or unfairly the wild horses are being treated. Obviously, this is deliberate because 361 legal acres per individual wild horse at present is not an overpopulation of wild horses and the many more head of livestock grazing on these same lands is the real overpopulation! And if and when BLM nearly eliminates the wild horses from this vast over-million-acre legal area of theirs, then there would be a dangerously underpopulated wild horse population here. And then, as is planned according to the EA, if BLM proceeds to inflict sterilization or semi-sterilizing drugs, cruel surgeries, etc., upon the wild horses as well as sex ratio skewing, the wild horses will be further seriously compromised in their ability to survive particularly as truly long-term viable populations. Additionally, their natural ecological adaptations to this unique ecosystem and their natural self-stabilization of numbers would be terribly set back.
As a native fourth generation Nevadan and descendant of pioneers, a life-long wild horse observer, writer, photographer and defender, including in Court, as well as a professional wildlife ecologist, I have been visiting and observing the Pancake Complex wild horses since the 1970s. I have taken some spectacular photos of the magnificent mustangs of the Pancake Complex dating back decades. These include some of the Medicine Hat paints from Sand Springs West HMA, including a dashing young stallion that became famously known as “El Espanto”. The latter: when I was working for the Animal Protection Institute of America. If BLM goes ahead with this shameless plan, I will personally suffer because of my bond with these horses, their land and their freedom. But most of all, it is for their own sake, i.e. that of the wild horses themselves, that we humans should learn to share the land and freedom. We should do so equitably and with true caring and appreciation toward these magnificent and Earth-healing presences who are deeply rooted North American native species with whom we share this extraordinary, life-inhabited planet Earth as home.
Craig C. Downer
Additional Points with ref. to EA page #:
P. 5: Wild horses are not being considered “comparably” with other values, uses, presences, activities, etc., as per PRIA & FLPMA. Many believe their rights to fair numbers and resources should be guaranteed under the National Historical Preservation Act and the Endangered Species Act. The Pancake EA’s arguments are very dogmatic and employ bogus circular reasoning. I believe this EA has been deliberately designed to discredit and eliminate the wild horses because of a “target mentality”.
P. 6: How can the crippled wild horse population level this EA is proposing — a level that would be greatly compromised by sterilization and reproduction-thwarting measures — be considered a TNEB?. Under this draconian suppression the wild horses themselves would not be “thriving”.
P. 7: Of all the alternatives presented by the EA, I have no choice but to favor the No Action Alternative. I recommend you employ the sound principles of a Reserve Design strategy that will truly reinstate and implement the WFHBA, not make a mockery thereof. For details see my proposal at www.gofundme.com/mstngreservedesign. This would involve reducing livestock and other conflicting monopolizers of the public lands, including mining and energy extraction, vehicles and OHVs, allowing native predators to make a comeback, and curbing hunter monopolies on wildlife and habitat, among other factors. In other words, it would entail really standing up for the wild horses in the wild, i.e. in the natural world, and allowing them to realize their true place, role and niche therein, to harmoniously adapt and to naturally self stabilize as can be facilitated through an intelligent Reserve Design that is especially tailored to each HMA. This would be a Rewilding strategy, rather a thinly disguised Industrialization of our cherished Public Lands. The restoration of these as healthy natural ecosystems is critical today in combatting Global Warming and restoring biodiversity and balance among all life forms.
P. 7: There are many serious harms that PZP as well as GonaCon inflict upon the wild horses. These are antithetical to the true intent of the WFHBA and constitute a domestication of the wild horses and greatly harm these equids’ ability to survive, especially in the long-term (see my article based on sound and honest science at https://www.thewildhorseconspiracy.org/2017/03/18/will-there-be-a-healthy-future-for-americas-wild-horses-by-craig-c-downer/). These procedures are counter to Section 3 ( a ) of the WFHBA concerning “minimum feasible level” of management as well as the core intent of the Act concerning treating the wild horses and burros as “integral” parts of the public lands ecosystem and managing and protecting them so that they too can be part of a “thriving natural ecological balance” rather than being treated disdainfully and with least respect and provision – as is currently the case!