BUREAU OF LAND MANAGEMENT PROPOSES AGGRESSIVE PLAN TO ERADICATE WILD HORSES AND BURROS ON FEDERAL RANGELANDS
The Trump administration is proposing an aggressive plan that would permanently remove as many as 20,000 wild horses and burros off federal rangelands annually, costing as much as $900 million in the first five years, according to a long-delayed report to Congress.
The 33-page report entitled, "An Analysis of Achieving a Sustainable Wild Horse and Burro Program", lays out BLM's three-phase plan that would allow the agency to reduce the roughly 90,000 wild horses and burros living on federal rangelands across the West to sustainable levels in 15 to 18 years.
It does not include any consideration of euthanizing animals or selling rounded-up animals without ensuring they are not transferred to foreign slaughterhouses, as did a previous BLM report submitted to Congress in 2018. Instead, the new report proposes not only to capture and permanently remove roughly 20,000 animals a year, but also to round up an additional 9,000 animals a year to be treated with "some form of long-term temporary or permanent fertility control" before returning them to the range.
BLM, in an emailed statement, said the report "outlines a comprehensive, non-lethal population control strategy to address chronic overpopulation of wild horses and burros and their impact to BLM-managed public lands." The bureau, the statement added, wants to work "with Congress, its partners, state and local governments, and the private sector to ensure healthy wild horses and burros continue to thrive on healthy public rangelands for future generations to enjoy." It's not clear what Congress will think of the plan — or the hefty price tag. A spokesman for the House Natural Resources Committee said the panel is still reviewing the document.
BLM under the plan would also continue research "into improving long-term fertility control treatments and humane permanent sterilization (with a particular emphasis on modern chemical sterilization methods)." All this could reduce growing populations of wild horses and burros to the appropriate management level (AML) of about 26,715 animals in the next two decades, according to the report. The cost of the strategy — starting at $116 million the first year and increasing to $238 million by the fifth year — comes amid the COVID-19 pandemic that has crippled the nation's economy.
The new report proposes not only to capture and permanently remove roughly 20,000 animals a year, but also to round up an additional 9,000 animals a year to be treated with "some form of long-term temporary or permanent fertility control" before returning them to the range.
But the alternative of maintaining the status quo could be far worse, the report concludes. "If nothing were done to reduce the annual growth rate of these herds, by 2040, the BLM estimates the on-range populations of wild horses and burros could increase to over 2.8 million," the report says. Such a density of animals would lead "to catastrophic harm to the land, to other species, and to wild horses and burros themselves."
BLM is roughly nine months late submitting the report to congressional appropriators. They requested last year that BLM prepare the report. BLM acting chief William Perry Pendley told reporters last fall that Interior Secretary David Bernhardt was partly responsible for the delay. "I will tell you the Secretary was unhappy with previous documents that we prepared on this subject, and he gave strict orders that we're to prepare a thoughtful and well-reasoned document to deliver to the Hill; anything less we're not going to send up there," Pendley said.
The delay sparked seven Democratic members of Congress to press Bernhardt in a letter to finalize and submit the report. It also prompted appropriators to insert language into the fiscal 2020 funding bill withholding $21 million for BLM's Wild Horse and Burro Program until 60 days after the report is submitted
While the latest version considers only nonlethal strategies, its insistence on ramping up wild horse and burro roundups and continuing research into permanent sterilization did not please most wild horse and animal welfare groups. The answer to reducing herd sizes, those groups say, is ramping up fertility controls, along with smaller-scale roundups and removals that ensure the animals are protected and population levels are reduced.
But BLM disagrees. The report concludes that using only "short-term fertility control vaccines at any scale" will not result in a significant reduction in herd sizes. "The analysis suggests the most effective way to achieve [appropriate management levels] is to annually remove a large number of animals permanently from the range," the report says, "especially since a high percentage of mares captured are pregnant at the time of capture."
"The number of animals annually removed is the dominant variable controlling total program costs," it adds. "Therefore, the annual projected removals are critical to containing program costs and achieving AML." Once the herds sizes are reduced to an appropriate management level, the report says, "fertility control would become a relatively more cost-effective strategy, with permanent sterilization options being more cost-effective in the long run than temporary sterilization which must be repeated."
Source: E&E News
The Bureau of Land Management appears to have adopted acting chief William Perry Pendley's position that the growing number of wild horses and burros is perhaps the biggest threat to the health of federal rangelands. President Trump's proposed fiscal 2021 budget requests Congress provide an additional $15.3 million for BLM's Wild Horse and Burro Program — to $116.8 million from $101.5 million in the current budget cycle.
BLM estimates there are more than 88,000 wild horses and burros trampling federal herd management areas — more than three times the number of animals the rangelands can sustain without damaging vegetation, soils and other resources. Pendley has said the 88,000 wild horses and burros in the West pose an "existential threat" to federal rangelands.
Congress appears to agree the issue is worthy of additional funding. Congress allocated $101.5 million in fiscal 2020 for BLM's Wild Horse and Burro Program, which was roughly $21 million more than in fiscal 2019. But appropriators withheld $21 million for the program in fiscal 2020 until 60 days "after the Bureau submits a comprehensive and detailed plan for an aggressive, non-lethal population control strategy".
Congress requested the plan from BLM early last year; it directed that, among other things, BLM outline specific strategies, and the estimated costs, to reduce herd sizes.
That plan was due to Congress last August; BLM is expected to finalize and submit the plan in the coming weeks. Pendley has estimated it will cost $5 billion and take 15 years to reduce growing herds on federal rangelands to sustainable levels
Source: E&E News
The Bureau of Land Management is taking the initial steps to overhaul grazing regulations on public lands, a flashpoint issue that fueled the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s and the 2016 standoff at Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
The BLM is beginning a “scoping” process that will help shape the new regulations, according to a notice scheduled to be published in the Federal Register on Jan. 21.
The grazing regulations apply to an area nearly the size of Texas, or about 155 million acres of federal land across the lower 48 states, mainly in the West. Grazing influences the politics of public lands management and the land’s ability to withstand climate change.
Cattle eat grass and other plants while trampling soils that support wildlife on federal lands. Grazing also affects the spread of invasive plant species and rangeland wildfire, and it has effects on sage-grouse habitat, water use, water quality, biological diversity, and ecosystem resiliency in the face of climate change, according to scientific research from Oregon State University, the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies.
Modernizing Grazing Rules
The BLM in its Federal Register notice said it is overhauling the regulations in part to “modernize” them, improve grazing permitting efficiency, and comply with a 2014 federal law that exempts some grazing permits and leases from environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act. The agency said it will also include 2016 Government Accountability Office recommendations to prevent unauthorized grazing on federal lands.
A 2016 GAO report issued after the Malheur standoff recommended that the federal government keep records of all incidents of unauthorized grazing on federal land, update penalties for violations, and revise grazing regulations to reflect the best ways that federal agencies can resolve conflicts between the BLM and ranchers who let their livestock roam on federal lands without a permit.
Among the flashpoints for the Malheur standoff was tension between the BLM and ranchers who had been illegally grazing their cattle on federal lands. Similar tensions triggered the 1970s Sagebrush Rebellion, in which ranchers protested BLM grazing policy and federal ownership of public lands in the West.
The BLM’s acting director, William Perry Pendley, has been a champion of sagebrush rebels for decades. His Twitter handle is @Sagebrush_Rebel, and he advocated for grazers’ rights as president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, which represents ranchers in cases against the BLM. The bureau declined to answer questions about the overhaul Friday, providing a press release instead.
“This rulemaking effort is designed to strengthen and improve our administration of grazing permits across the West, and we welcome public and stakeholder ideas and perspectives,” Casey B. Hammond, acting assistant Interior secretary of land and minerals management, said in the statement.
Cutting Out Public Input?
“Changes to the regulations are a big deal for the West,” said Greta Anderson, deputy director for the Western Watersheds Project, which launched a court challenge to George W. Bush administration efforts to relax compliance requirements for grazing regulation. Anderson said she worries the language of the BLM’s announcement suggests the agency may reduce standards for land health.
The announcement says BLM will “explore ways to use livestock grazing to reduce wildfire risk and improve rangeland health,” but Anderson said there is little scientific evidence that shows grazing can accomplish that. She also said she worries BLM may reduce opportunities for public involvement in grazing decisions. The BLM’s announcement says the agency seeks to ensure “adequate” public participation “without unduly burdening administrative processes.”
“Ranchers are going to have more of a free pass to do what they want, and the opportunity for the public to push back on their narrow interests will be limited,” Anderson said, based on the text of the notice.
‘Good Regulations and Good Processes’
Mary Jo Rugwell, who retired last year as director of the BLM in Wyoming, said the BLM’s existing grazing regulations work well if the bureau enforces them. “We have good regulations and good processes,” she said. “My concern is that this is an effort to loosen the regulations in a way that might not be good for the public lands.” The BLM hasn’t released a timeline for completing its overhaul of the grazing regulations.
Bob Abbey, who served as BLM director in the Obama administration, said grazing regulations need to be updated to account for various court rulings and changes in federal law. “I am supportive of new language that provides the agency with greater flexibility within grazing permits to allow for changes in range conditions and improving efficiencies in the permitting processes, as long as there is continued emphasis on land health,” Abbey said.
A public comment period on the grazing regulations overhaul ends on March 6 following four public meetings in February. Those meetings will be in small, relatively isolated Western cities: Miles City, Mont.; Las Cruces, N.M.; Elko, Nev.; and Casper, Wyo.