Ranchers Want Our Public Lands for Their Livestock, and Want the Govt. to Stick It to Wild Horses and Taxpayers
For months, ranchers in Utah’s Iron and Beaver counties have been pressuring the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to remove 697 out of 777 wild horses from public rangeland called the Bible Springs Complex.
What prompted them was a BLM request seeking voluntary reductions in livestock on public land suffering damage during the long drought. Faced with the loss of cheap forage for their cattle and sheep, the ranchers found a way to deflect the blame and economic burden.
Wild horses make an easy target; but that’s only as long as the BLM's and the ranchers’ case for removal goes unexamined. The news media so far has done little probing into the issue—not in Utah, nor elsewhere ranchers lobby to get rid of wild horses.
Instead, the ranchers and BLM simply assert that the mustangs—and not privately owned livestock—are “overpopulating” and “overgrazing.” This claim is made without any scientific proof. Overgrazing as compared to what, exactly? Cattle and sheep? Neither the BLM nor the ranchers will provide data.
What is known is that the ranchers have nearly two million acres of grazing allotments in Iron and Beaver counties that overlap eight herd management areas (HMAs) where wild horses are protected. The four HMAs making up the Bible Springs Complex are just a fraction of the more than half-million acres where the wild horses (and private livestock) graze together under “multiple use” land policies. Another nearly million and a half acres of public lands provide further forage exclusively for cattle and sheep.
The ranchers have grazing privileges there (but no property rights) for which they pay the Federal Government a nominal fee of $1.35 for one cow and her calf or five sheep to graze for a month’s time — that is, unless they refuse to pay, as Cliven Bundy did (and as some ranchers are apparently now threatening to do in other parts of Utah).
The $1.35 fee compares to upwards of $16.00 per month—on average—to graze on private land.
The ranchers complain that the wild horses are not being “managed” on the HMAs, and in BLM parlance, that generally means chased by helicopters into pens (the BLM calls these taxpayer-funded roundups “gathers"), separated by age and gender, and, for the majority of wild horses, shipped off to private long-term holding facilities paid for by taxpayers where they will never run free (or be seen by the public) again.
The costs are substantial. Round-ups last year cost the BLM $1,149 per horse, or $4.8 million; long-term holding for 48,194 wild horses permanently removed from public lands costs taxpayers $1.35 per horse per day for the rest of their lives (which can span 30 years or more) or $46.2 million last year. The program, which cost $76.1 million, is pretty much considered to be financially unsustainable by everyone, from the BLM and the ranchers to the public and members of Congress.
The federal grazing program is unsustainable, too, but ranchers aren’t complaining. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), managing private livestock grazing on federal land costs at least $144 million annually, but brings in only $21 million in grazing fees—for a net loss of at least $123 million per year.
Add in other direct and indirect costs not included in the GAO report and the cost of federal public lands grazing on only BLM and Forest Service lands may total as much as $500 million to $1 billion annually.
This is according to Wild Earth Guardians, a group that lays the extensive damage caused by overgrazing on public lands at the ranching industry’s door. On this, they are not alone.