Response to Alta Magazine's, "Feral Horses, Fierce Controversy"

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“Fake news” is a reality in today’s society, and our wild horses and burros are not immune from the barrage of inaccurate, misleading, agenda-driven reporting.

A recent example is Jason G. Goldman’s “Feral Horses, Fierce Controversy” that was published in the July  issue of Alta, a magazine that professes to fashion itself after The New Yorker and Rolling Stone and promises “a celebration and examination of all things about California.”

On the one hand, Mr. Goldman’s cover story is typical of other anti-wild horse/pro-rancher propaganda pieces. In this case, the subject was the wild horses who live on the Devil’s Garden Wild Horse Territory (DGWHT) within the Modoc National Forest in Alturas, CA. According to Mr. Goldman, these federally-protected mustangs are so overpopulated that private ranchers in Modoc County are no longer able to make living grazing their livestock because of rangeland degradation caused exclusively by the horses.

Mr. Goldman constructed this “fake news” premise through an alarming combination of sensationalism and sloppy and biased reporting. In doing so, he’s elevated the conflict between wild horses and ranchers to a whole new level for no purpose other than to misinform and push a divisive and dangerous agenda

Start with the sensationalism.  It’s unfortunate that Mr. Goldman is so enamored by the cowboy archetype and its manifestation in his story’s subject, ranch manager Jesse Dancer, that he fails to peel back the layers and investigate the real story in Devil’s Garden – the undue influence on federal policy of  local private ranchers seeking unfettered access to grazing on the 258,000 acres of public rangelands and the near elimination of the Devil’s Garden wild horses.

For starters, Modoc County is not the Wild West.  While ranchers shooting people and wild horses and things getting “ugly in the cattle vs. horse standoff” makes for good headlines, it’s irresponsible of Mr. Goldman to frame his article around Jess Dancer’s glib predictions of violence, especially because there is no evidence that other ranchers support such actions.

Moreover, Jess Dancer is not a “small family” rancher struggling to survive. He’s the manager of Alturas Ranches, a corporate ranching operation owned by a wealthy developer based in San Jose, CA.

Instead of focusing on the financial woes of Alturas Ranches as a result of reduced grazing in the Devil’s Garden Territory, a more salient line of inquiry would be why a multi-millionaire is allowed to graze his cattle on public lands, paying grazing fees that are a fraction of market rate, thanks to subsidies from American taxpayers.  And this is not an isolated situation – other wealthy individuals and national and international corporations, such as J. R. Simplot Corporation and the Hewlitt and Hilton families, also enjoy similar perks. 

Then there’s Mr. Goldman’s fondness for inaccuracy, bias, and omission.  There’s a whole list of examples – in fact, way too many to cite. But here are some of the most egregious. 

Regarding the wild horse population in Devil’s Garden, Mr. Goldman asserts that removing 932 horses in 2018 wasn’t “enough to solve the problem” because nearly still 4,000 remain.  He also cites Laura Snell, a livestock specialist for the University of California Cooperative Extension and a vehement wild horse opponent, who predicts that another roundup this fall will target 1,500 horses for removal in order to restore the ecology of the range.

Here’s the reality.  Last week the United States Forest Service (USFS) issued a press release that totally contradicts those numbers – a Spring 2019 census found 1,802 horses inside and outside the Territory –less than half the number claimed by Goldman -- and a roundup scheduled this fall will remove 500 of them.  In the article, Jess Dancer claimed that over 1,000 wild horses are on the Emigrant Springs public lands allotment where Alturas Ranches grazes privately-owned cattle, but the Forest Service Census found 436

This brings up another concern – Mr. Goldman’s sources.  Like Jess Dancer and Laura Snell, his other go-to guys, Keith Norris, and Eric Beever are both affiliated with the Wildlife Society, which lobbies for the interests of cattlemen and hunters and pushes for the mass roundup and slaughter of wild horses. Both Norris and Beever scapegoat wild horses for rangeland damage in the West. Of course, Goldman’s article promotes their claims without alerting readers to the fact that an estimated nine million cattle and only 80,000 wild horses and burros actually live on Western public lands. 

Perhaps the deepest flaw in Mr. Goldman’s treatise is that he never bothered to contact two major stakeholders. One is the Modoc National Forest, the federal agency that is tasked with managing the Devil’s Garden Territory.  In fact, they didn’t even know he was writing the article.

The other is the American Wild Horse Campaign (AWHC).  If Mr. Goldman had spoken with us, he would have learned, among other things, about our efforts to expose the unprecedented influence that local ranching interests have on the management of the Devil’s Garden Territory; our lawsuits to win back the middle section of the Territory for the wild horse herd and prevent the USFS from selling the horses for slaughter; our very successful PZP program for the 4,000 wild horses on the Virginia Range in Nevada as well as our proposed PZP pilot project for Devil’s Garden .  (After we committed substantial resources to the planning the project, the USFS sidelined it in large part, we believe, because of resistance from the Modoc County Farm Bureau and local cattle groups.)

But he didn’t.  And here’s why. 

He’s touted as an award-winning journalist,  but Mr. Goldman has failed to uphold journalistic standards in his article that perpetuates the simplistic “wild horses are bad – ranchers are good” myth.  According to him, “feral” horses – not wild horses, mind you – are solely responsible for “squeezing out cattle and native wildlife that must compete for limited resources” Nothing is said about the thousands of cattle and sheep that run in the Modoc Forest every year. Mr. Goldman’s only solution: rounding up and removing them – and, if necessary, selling them for slaughter.

Finally, adhering to the tenets of “fake news,” Mr. Goldman practices the fine art of omission, which includes omitting any mention of the following:

  •  a 2013 report by the National Academy of Sciences warns that roundup and removals are “expensive and unproductive” and maximize “the population growth rate” and recommended the use of fertility control, including PZP, as a more cost-effective and sustainable alternative for stabilizing and reducing population rates;

  • paleontological and mitochondrial DNA evidence supports the fact that wild horses are native wildlife, not “feral” or an invasive species;

  • protection of the Devil’s Garden wild horses is mandated under federal law, while livestock grazing there is a privilege offered at the discretion of the Secretary of Agriculture;

  • the number of privately-owned livestock that the USFS allows to graze on the DGWHT vastly exceeds the number of wild horses permitted there – 3,700 cattle and 2,900 sheep compared to 206 - 402 wild horses;

  • 100 years of unmanaged livestock grazing and current intensive grazing practices that sanction turning out livestock during the spring, a critical growth period for grasses and other forage, are the real cause of the extensive ecological damage within the DGWHT; and

  • California’s elected officials – including Senator Diane Feinstein, Attorney General Xavier Becerra, Representative Ted Lieu, and Assemblyman Todd Gloria -- have spoken out against the USFS’s inhumane management plans for Devil’s Garden wild horses. 

In “Feral Horses, Fierce Controversy,” Mr. Goldman and Alta miss an opportunity to celebrate and examine “all things about California” – in this case, the state’s largest and most historic wild horse herd and the ongoing threats it faces by entitled local ranching interests who control the USFS’s management of the DGWHT.  While Mr. Goldman is correct in characterizing the DGWHT as controversial, he misses the mark in branding the Devil’s Garden wild horses as the “problem.” In serving up this fake news, he does a huge disservice not only to the readers of Alta but the American public who value wild horses and their protection.