Breaking it Down: Understanding Emergency Roundups for Wild Horses and Burros

(August 10, 2021) The BLM recently announced that it will conduct “emergency” actions to round up and permanently remove more than 6,000 “drought-stricken” wild horses and burros from Western public lands. The planned action will boost the total number of animals targeted for removal this summer and fall to nearly 10,000. Emergency action by the agency has already led to the removal of 1,200 animals all while permitting private, taxpayer-subsidized livestock to continue to graze in the same areas.

What is an emergency action and who authorizes it?

According to the BLM’s Handbook, Section 4.7.2, an “emergency” is generally an unexpected event that threatens the health and welfare of wild horses and burros and/or their habitat. Such emergencies are things like fire or disease. In these cases, immediate action is usually required. Once it is determined there is an emergency, the decision-maker must contact the BLM’s Washington D.C. Office, Division of Planning and Science Policy (WO-210) to outline subsequent actions the BLM plans to take. 

Usually, BLM wild horses or burro management actions must go through a formal National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process that requires the agency to consider the impacts of its proposed action to the environment. In the case of an emergency though, BLM has other options. If there is not already a NEPA plan in place, like an Environmental Assessment (EA), then the BLM’s NEPA Handbook, Section 2.3, provides “alternative arrangements” that may be established for BLM to comply with NEPA. Alternative arrangements do not waive the requirement to comply with NEPA, but establish an alternative means for compliance.

If timeframes permit, ideally BLM should complete a NEPA plan prior to removing any wild horses or burros. If this is not possible, the BLM’s emergency actions should be documented and then a report should be prepared after resolution of the problem. Also, the emergency actions should only address the emergency. If BLM wants to take further action, like applying fertility control in an HMA with no NEPA plan for example, then it must undertake a NEPA process in order to take that further action.

Where is this happening?

In the final months of Fiscal Year 2021 (which ends September 30th), we are seeing the BLM use the “emergency” designation across the West as an excuse to round up and remove more wild horses and burros from their homes on federal public lands.

For example, a very large emergency roundup is underway in the Antelope Complex in Nevada. Here, the BLM released a final NEPA decision back in 2017 to remove approximately 4,894-5,256 wild horses from the Antelope Complex in order to achieve the unscientific “Appropriate” Management Level (AML) of 427-789 wild horses. Now, the BLM is implementing this decision with the designation of an “emergency” action and is in the process of removing about 2,200 wild horses from their home on public lands.

However, while the BLM claims that there is currently not enough forage and/or water in the Complex to sustain the wild horse population, at the same time the BLM continues to authorize thousands of cattle and sheep to graze in the Complex. 

Did you know that BLM has the authority to close HMAs to livestock grazing? 

Federal regulation 43 C.F.R. § 4710.5 authorizes the BLM to “close appropriate areas of the public lands to grazing use by all or a particular kind of livestock . . . [i]f necessary to provide habitat for wild horses or burros, to implement herd management actions, or to protect wild horses or burros from disease, harassment or injury.” In the past, BLM has claimed that this regulation can only be utilized in emergency situations, yet nothing in the regulation restricts its use to emergencies. However, with the agency’s announcement that emergency conditions are necessitating the removal of thousands of wild horses and burros from their federally designated habitat, it seems like the perfect time for BLM to utilize this authority and protect wild horses and burros instead of private livestock.

It is time for the BLM to manage wild horse habitat for the wild horses.

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How much livestock grazing is in these areas?

Livestock grazing is permitted in wild horse habitat across the West. On BLM lands, cattle graze on 155 million acres while wild horses and burros have access to about 27 million of those acres, which they must share with livestock, and even there, cattle are allotted 75% of the forage while the horses and burros get only 25%. BLM organizes grazing into units called allotments. Usually each HMA will have several allotments that overlap its boundaries, meaning that wild horses and burros are forced to share their federally-designated habitat with thousands of private cattle and sheep. 

For example, in the West Douglas Herd Area (HA) in Colorado where the BLM has set an AML of zero wild horses, the BLM continues to authorize 713 cow/calf pairs to graze in the HA. There are currently two livestock allotments that overlap by 70% and 20% respectively, leading to 8,565 Animal Unit Months (AUMs) for livestock and none allocated for wild horses. 

On top of that, the taxpayer foots the bill for federally subsidized livestock grazing on public lands as well. The federal grazing fee remains at its historic low of $1.35 per animal per month. That’s a steep discount, thanks to the taxpayer subsidies that prop up this federal entitlement program. (Estimates indicate that the overall cost to taxpayers for the federal grazing program could be as much as $500 million annually.)

Soon, you will be hard-pressed to find horses in this area. What will be left are tax-subsidized cows littering the land where iconic wild horses once roamed.

What happens to the wild horses and burro who are removed?

Wild horses and burros removed from public lands are sent to off-range holding corrals to be processed for adoption or sale. Those that are not adopted or sold will spend the rest of their lives in long-term government holding facilities. Males are gelded, foals and families separated, and their lives are never the same.

Worse yet, the BLM’s Adoption Incentive Program (AIP) is still up and running. Through the AIP, adopters are taking horses and burros from the BLM, pocketing the $1,000 cash incentive, and flipping the animals to kill pens across the country one year later once title has passed to the adopter. AWHC has launched a comprehensive campaign, including litigation, to end this program. Together, AWHC and our rescue partners continue to track and rescue wild horses and burros who we are lucky enough to find before they ship to Canada and Mexico for slaughter.

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We will never stop working until wild horses and burros are guaranteed the freedom and protections they were awarded decades ago. Join us in keeping wild horses and burros wild for generations to come!