September 7, 2016: Field Tour for the BLM National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board

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DATE:        7 September 2016
EVENT:     Field Tour for the BLM National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board

WHERE:    Elko NV

The BLM National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board is composed of representatives from multiple interest groups and the public.  The nine members of the Board, who represent interests ranging from humane advocacy to livestock management, usually meet twice a year to listen to presentations on issues that affect wild horse and burro management decisions, discuss the topics and issues, and generate a list of recommendations on how to improve the management of wild horses and burros which they submit to the BLM for consideration.  (You can read more about the Board here: http://www.blm.gov/wo/st/en/prog/whbprogram/Advisory_Board.html)

 

Today, the Board and some observers (including me) were taken on a field trip to see the range conditions of the Antelope Valley Herd Management Area (HMA).  BLM employees from the Elko and Ely offices guided the trip, and we drove south from I-80 on Highway 93, east on Highway Alt 93, and then north on dirt roads to make a loop around the Dolly Varden Mountains.  We stopped and talked at 4-5 different locations within the HMA.  

The overriding agenda was to show that the HMA was vastly overpopulated with horses and that they were causing potentially irreversible damage to the range.  The BLM also stressed the impacts of limited water resources; specifically, its potential to increase range degradation in the vicinity of water sources, and the potential for catastrophic consequences should the water run dry. 

 

The tour stops were focused on two areas of the HMA:  1) On the east side of the Dolly Varden Mountains where livestock had not been grazed in 8 years and where many horses live, and 2) The west side of Dolly Varden Mountains where fewer horses live and where cattle are grazed in the winter.  

 

While we were left with little question that the range on the east side of the Dolly Varden Mountains is in poor condition, further investigation is needed to fully understand the impacts livestock grazing (permitted and trespass) have had on range condition.

 

The 2010 Environmental Assessment (EA) (web link here) indicates that the greater complex is fairly heavily grazed:  Allotments in the Antelope HMA are Becky Springs (100% in HMA), Becky Creek (99% in HMA), Chin Creek (99% in the HMA), Goshute Mountain (100% in HMA), Deep Creek (98% in HMA), Sampson Creek (99% in HMA), North Steptoe (75% in HMA), Lovell Peak (94% in HMA) and Tippett (27% in HMA).

 

Additionally, there was no mention of the thousands of sheep that graze in the Becky Springs area (which is just south of Alt 93, where it splits from Highway 93), nor that the sheep were in trespass for over a month last year after they were supposed to be removed.

 

Though we were told on the tour that the range was allocated (by Animal Unit Months, or AUMs) in a fairly equitable split between horses and livestock, an analysis of the EA indicates that between 7 to 15 times as much forage is allocated to livestock grazing in the greater complex.  Part of this discrepancy might be due to the BLM talking about the forage split in a specific area of the range where we were stopped (see my comment in a subsequent paragraph about our ability to gain clarification on what was said).  It should also be noted that the excess horses (as defined as being well-above the Appropriate Management Level, or AML) are consuming far more AUMs.


Regardless of the cause of the degradation, all were in agreement that maintaining healthy rangelands is crucial for the benefit of all users.

 

Note: in order to fully understand the situation in this HMA, board members and the public would need to know actual use for livestock grazing in all of the allotments in the HMA for the past five years, as well as the locations of all water sources and a map of fencing in the area to determine impediments to wild horses utilizing their entire range. This information was not provided by the BLM, thus no conclusions can be drawn from this range tour, which was clearly designed, as stated above, to show wild horses overpopulating and damaging the range. 

Following, are some of the more salient points about the HMA, and the conversation topics generated by the BLM presentation.  (I’ve done my best to accurately report the details, but please understand that we were tag-alongs and did not have as much access to ask questions as the Board Members did – which is understandable.) 

 

 

ANTELOPE VALLEY HMA

 

·        The Antelope Valley HMA is located about 50 miles south of Wells Nevada.  It consists of 502,909 acres (of which, 6,553 are privately owned). 

·        The Appropriate Management Level (AML) is 155-259 horses.  (Note:  The greater Antelope Complex AML is 427-788.)

·        The BLM estimates that there are 1,100-1,200 horses on the HMA, or about “4 times more” than they desire. 

·        The herd is divided into two major groups by the east/west running Highway Alt 93, which is double fenced due to previous accidents involving cars and horses. 

·        Local ranchers have reduced the number of cows they run by about 25%, and in some cases certain portions of the range are not used at all for permitted grazing.  The reduction of the number of cows is due to poor range conditions, and a lot of the blame is being directed to the high horse numbers.      

·        The horses are in good body condition due to a relatively wet spring, but they expect their condition to degrade as we enter fall and winter.  Due to the constraints of the degraded range they expect the horses to switch from grazing (grasses) to browsing (shrubs). 

·        The horses to the north of Alt 93 often intermingle with horses from the Spruce-Pequop and Goshute HMAs.

·        The horses were very wary of vehicles and people.  They would not allow us to get very close to them. 

·        The area typically receives 5-8” of precipitation per year, but that the past four years had exhibited drought conditions and only about 20-30% of normal precipitation fell. 

 

NOTES

·        During the trip we saw approximately 275 horses from the trucks and during stops.  Unlike a normal trip to a range to look for horses, we were driving in a convoy of about 10 trucks and were not able to stop at will to glass for horses.  Had we been able to do so, I’m certain we easily would have increased our count.  Here is a rough summary of the horses we saw:

o   150+ at Boone Springs

o   15-20 near Dolly Varden Spring

o   100+ in the valley to the north of Dolly Varden Spring

o   10-15 on the west side of Dolly Varden Mountains

·        A major focus of the field trip was to show us the diminished quality of the rangeland where many of the horses reside.  It was expressed that if we don’t get down to AML we will see the range continue to degrade.

o   Our first stop and talk was just north of Alt 93 and just south of Dolly Varden Spring.  We spent quite a bit of time talking about the diminished quality of the range where many of the 1,100 horses live. 

§  To the untrained eye the range can look relatively lush (though brown and dry this time of year), but it was explained to us that many of the plants we saw were of little value from a grazing standpoint.  Halogeton, cheat, rabbit brush and other undesirable plants were taking over due to the land being overgrazed. 

§  The BLM stated that there had been no permitted livestock grazing for 7 years, so the excess number of horses was the main culprit for the diminished quantities of preferred plants (blue bunch wheatgrass, winterfat, Indian rice grass, and others).    

§  The area experienced a “fairly good” spring from a precipitation standpoint, so the vegetation was taller than they’d seen in recent years.  

§  They said that the winterfat (an important, nutritious plant eaten in late season and in winter – see picture, below) was doing well, and that the horses seemed to know that they should reserve it for harder times.

o   The consensus of the BLM employees, and Board Members versed in range science, was that even if all the horses were removed and no livestock were reintroduced, the range would take decades to “a hundred years” to recover from its current condition.  And, given the low normal precipitation for the area, mechanical or aerial reseeding effort would likely not be effective, so the restoration would have to occur through natural processes.

 Note: There was apparently no discussion of the historic impacts of livestock grazing on this area. What were the previous stocking rates? If the range will take 100 years to recover then there is no doubt the Advisory Board was looking at a range degraded from historic livestock use…which the horses shared, but at historically much lower levels that livestock.

 

o   The final stop for the tour was on the west side of the Dolly Varden Mountains to show us what a healthier range should look like.

§  Although the vegetation was spread farther apart, with bare ground between, the plants were of a better variety (e.g. rice grass) for grazing and there was no halogeton or cheat grass.

§  Fewer horses (BLM estimates 70-100) graze on this side of the mountain.  When asked why, the BLM employees said they did not know for certain.  It could be due to less water access, or because most of the horses do not know about the area.

§  The area does have cattle grazing in the winter.  The BLM said that the rancher is proactive in range management (has seeded some areas, moves cattle by moving water sources, etc.), which explains in part why the range is in better condition.

§   

·        The sage grouse is one of the species that can be affected by overgrazing.  The state of Nevada is heavily invested in keeping the sage grouse from being added to the endangered species list.  One point that was made by a board member was that riparian areas are essential habitat for young sage grouse.  Horses can adversely impact riparian areas, particularly when water is scarce and they spend more time waiting to get their fill.  Some additional reading on the importance of wetlands can be found here:   http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb1266479.pdf

·        Like many HMAs in Nevada (driest state in the US), water is a limited resource on the Antelope Valley HMA.  Private landowners, some of whom are ranchers, control much of water and ownership rights often go back to when the land was first settled.  The BLM owns very little water in the state of Nevada and to a degree is at the mercy of the landowners who do own it.  We stopped at the following water resources:

o   Just to the south of Alt 93 we stopped and watched about 150-200 horses who were just off the highway jockeying for position at a large waterhole called Boone Springs.  A landowner who is not a rancher privately owns it.

o    The tour group took a break at Dolly Varden Spring, which is owned by a mining company, and had lunch in the shade of the big trees. Afterward, we walked down to the main pool at the spring.   The spring is the primary water source for about 1,000 horses, though the BLM repeatedly stated that they thought is should only be supporting about 40-50 horses, and that figure in years when spring has good flow.  The spring is also a principal water source for wildlife.  We saw numerous pronghorn in the area, and there was the carcass of a young elk on the dirt road.  The spring has good flow this year, but has had diminished flow in recent years.  (Note:  During the public comment period on Day 1 of the Board Meeting, a local rancher who grazes in the area indicated that the BLM is “illegally” using the water for horses, and that the spring’s owner asked him to fence it off.)

o   We stopped at Deer Spring on the north side of the Dolly Varden Mountain.   It consists of a trough fed by a pipeline, and a 1,800 gallon elk guzzler as a back up water source.  The spring was flowing, which is not typical this time of year.  One of the BLM employees commented that this was the most water he’d ever seen in the trough.  In the mid-1990’s the BLM did try to improve the spring flow by thinning the cottonwood trees up the draw where they presume the spring begins, but it had no effect.  A few years ago a number of horses died here waiting for water.  Their bones were still near the trough, and we were told there were many more in the draw up the hill.  It is not uncommon to need to truck water to this location.  A BLM employee was asked why thirsting horses had died in an area that is a known trouble spot resulted in an “I don’t know” response.  It would be a good project for a volunteer who wanted to regularly monitor the water supply during the summer months.   

·        When any water source is plentiful, and horses can easily get their fills, they will often walk 15-20 miles to find preferred grazing sites.  When water is scarce, and they are limited in the amount they can drink at one time, they will stay closer to the water source and have a heavier impact on the rangelands within 4-5 miles. 

·        On Day 1 of the Board meetings we heard from Nevada State Veterinarian Dr. JJ Goicoechea who mentioned that just today (8 September) he’d received a phone call about 250 horses who were congregated near a spring who were in desperate need of water. 

·        “Not much” contraception has been used in the area.  When questioned about why not, the answer was that there were too many horses for it to be effective.  “If we could get down to AML…”

·        While heading south on Highway 93 we passed the closed gates of Madeleine Pickens’ Mustang Monument.  Interestingly, I heard no mention of it, or the recent issues.  (With that said, the group was spread out in about 10 trucks, and we had no BLM employees in our vehicle, so possibly there was conversation about the Monument en route and we missed it.) 

·        Upon returning to Elko we saw on page one of the Elko Daily Free Press that the BLM was conducing an emergency gather (bait and trap) in Wood Hills, which we drove past on Highway 93.  No mention of this was made during the tour stops.  You can read about the gather here:  http://elkodaily.com/news/local/blm-conducting-emergency-horse-gather-in...

2010 Environmental Assessment – Antelope Complex:  http://www.blm.gov/style/medialib/blm/nv/field_offices/elko_field_office/information/nepa/eas/archives/final_antelope_complex.Par.84567.File.dat/Antelope_Complex_WH_CP_EA.pdf

 

PICTURES

Alan Shepherd  (Nevada BLM WH&B Program Lead)

Ben Masters  (Advisory Board Member)

Fred Woehl (Advisory Board Member) and John Ruhs (BLM Nevada State Director)

The pocket of white in the middle of the picture is winterfat.

Ginger Kathrens (Advisory Board Member)  -- inspecting a plant

Wild horses near Dolly Varden Spring

Wild horses near Dolly Varden Spring

Coyote near Dolly Varden Spring

Wild horses near Dolly Varden Spring – picture was taken with 600mm of zoom – the horses are very wary.

Group at Dolly Varden Spring

Group on west side of Dolly Varden Mountains – this was the last stop, and representative of an area with healthier rangeland.

Indian Rice Grass – the good stuff!