As the Muddy Creek Roundup concludes (with 153 horses rounded up and removed and one horse dead), it is important to understand the full picture of the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM’s) management of the area.
The Muddy Creek Herd Management Area (HMA) is located 15 miles south of Emery, UT. The HMA encompasses 208,810 acres. The BLM allows for an Appropriate Management Level (AML) of only 75-125 horses within the HMA. The wild horses and burros of the HMA have occupied the San Rafael Swell area since the beginning of the Old Spanish Trail in the early 1800s. The dominant colors of the horses are bay, brown and black with a few pintos, gray and roan. The horses average in size from 700 to 1000 pounds.
In addition, the BLM allows for parts of 11 cattle grazing allotments, with a total of 2,853 animals, within the HMA during the winter and early spring. Utah ranchers commonly use the public lands for winter grazing while they rest their private lands during this time (including early spring/new growth period) when grazing is most damaging.
As elsewhere, here the BLM gives preference to privately-owned livestock over federally-protected wild horses in this designated herd management area.
In its Muddy Creek Wild Horse Gather Final Environmental Assessment (EA), DOI-BLM-UT-G020-2017-0032-EA, the BLM clearly stated that the overlap of wild horse and livestock use causes competition for forage and water. Yet, the BLM refused to further analyze an alternative that would remove or reduce livestock instead of wild horses from the HMA. (EA, p. 26).
The BLM continually states that it is currently authorized to remove livestock from the HMA, “if necessary to provide habitat for wild horses or burros, to implement herd management actions, or to protect wild horses and burros from disease, harassment or injury.” C.F.R. 4710.5. The BLM avoids acting under this authority by explaining that it is “usually applied in cases of emergency and not for general management of the wild horses and burros.” (EA, p. 27). However, the BLM has a statutory mandate to protect wild horses, while livestock grazing is permitted only at the discretion of the Interior Department. Livestock grazing is not required to fulfill the agency’s “multiple use” mandate.
In fact, a fiscal emergency does exist due to the fact that wild horse holding facilities are at capacity and consuming the majority of the BLM’s wild horse and burro program budget. Leaving horses on the range and making downward adjustments to taxpayer–subsidized livestock grazing levels is clearly the most cost–effective option. It is far more cost effective to curtail taxpayer–subsidized commercial livestock grazing in this area than it is to permanently remove wild horses from the range. The recent Tenth Circuit ruling, Wyo. v. U.S., 839 F.3d 938 (10th Cir. 2016), affirmed the BLM’s discretion to implement this alternative, and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) recommended this option as “a more affordable option than continuing to remove horses to long–term holding facilities.” (“Using Science to Improve the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program: A Way Forward,” National Academy of Sciences, June 2013, p. 270).
In the Muddy Creek EA, the BLM outlined the seasons of use and Animal Units Months (AUMs) for the allotments within the HMA, as seen in Table 2 below. (EA, p. 33)
The BLM reported “over the last 10 years livestock use has averaged 0% to 72% of that authorized depending on the allotment. With an overall average annual use of 51%.” (EA, p. 6 & Table 3, p. 34).
In contrast, the BLM anticipated that by “Spring 2018 the use by wild horses would exceed the forage allocated for wild horses in that area by over 156%.” (EA, p. 6). To arrive at this conclusion, the BLM relied on its Appropriate Management Level (AML) determination for the HMA. According to the NAS, the BLM’s AMLs are “not transparent to stakeholders, supported by scientific information, or amenable to adaptation with new information and environmental and social change.”
Therefore, at the very least, in comparing wild horse use to livestock use, the BLM should have used the same approach for calculating the area of influence of livestock as it does for wild horses. An AUM is supposed to be allocated for a 1,000-pound cow with a calf, but modern cattle are much bigger. The modern cow/calf pair requires 1.287 AUMs by this calculation. (“A Method of Determining Stocking Rate Based on Monthly Standing Herbage Biomass,” Llewellyn L. Manske, PhD, Range Specialist). The BLM also unfairly counts every horse when determining wild horse AUMs; no mare/foal pairs are considered.
The BLM just spent millions of tax dollars to round up and remove 151 horses from the Muddy Creek HMA and reduce the population to the low AML when the population was just 50 horses over the high end of the population limit. Why the BLM prioritized this removal over other areas is questionable, but it likely has to do with significantly reducing the horse population in advance of winter, when ranchers will turn out approximately 1,500 cows on the public lands in this area. As stated above, winter and early spring are the most sensitive times for the range and the time when intensive livestock grazing is most damaging.