Trump administration calls wild horses biggest threat to public lands — here are the real threats

Trump administration calls wild horses biggest threat to public lands — here are the real threats
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Acting BLM Director William Perry Pendley told the Society of Environmental Journalists in Colorado on Friday that wild horses were the biggest problem facing federal public lands in the West.

The silliness of this statement becomes obvious when one considers that wild horses don’t exist on more than 85 percent of BLM lands, and where they do occur, they have to share the range with domestic livestock which typically have an even bigger impact on the land. 

Pendley’s misstatement would be funny if it weren’t so dishonest and is symptomatic of major problems stemming from placing one of the nation’s most vitriolic opponents of environmental conservation in charge of our biggest land management agency.

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Let’s examine some of the real problems facing the Bureau of Land Management, from the standpoint of an environmental professional, to put Pendley’s claims in some context.

Symptomatic of BLM’s problematic role in the global extinction crisis, populations of the greater sage-grouse continue to plummet, as federal sage grouse plans fail to restore degraded habitats and spur a rebound to healthy population levels.

The Obama-era plans failed to deliver on their stated intentions. The promise of limiting livestock grazing to leaving seven inches of grass height in key grouse habitats never materialized, as the vast majority of 10-year grazing leases were renewed under the terms of a congressional grazing rider that rolls over permits without adding sage grouse protections. Restrictions on industrial use were riddled with loopholes, but the Obama administration did remove 5 million acres of sage grouse habitat from oil and gas lease auctions; without leasing the land, the oil industry couldn’t do much damage. 

Enter the Trump administration, which in the absence of the threat of Endangered Species listing was able to sweep aside the requirement to prioritize mineral leasing and drilling outside sage grouse habitats, eliminate livestock standards, and amend expand the loopholes so there is essentially no habitat protection left. Today, states are reporting sage grouse declines of 33 to 61 percent since the plans went into effect, and this magnificent bird remains on a path toward extinction.

The livestock industry continues to run roughshod over the vast majority of our Western public lands, causing a cascade of major environmental problems. The “take half, leave half” mismanagement of the grass on typical grazing leases, permitting by design the removal of far more than the 25 percent removal of forage plants that is the allowable maximum based on range science, results in chronic overgrazing and serious damage to public lands and their wildlife.

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Native herbivores like elk and mule deer are at fractions of their pre-livestock populations as a result, streams suffer such heavy damage from cattle concentrating near the water that many no longer can support native trout, and domestic sheep spread disease that wipes out bighorn sheep on such as scale that this majestic mountain denizen may itself be headed for an Endangered Species Act listing. The impacts of wild horses are miniscule by comparison. 

The oil industry has fragmented and industrialized millions of acres of Western public lands, decimating wildlife populations, obstructing migration corridors, contaminating groundwater with fracking fluids and destroying the recreational value of the land. When the oil, gas, and coal from Western public lands — minerals owned by the American public –—are extracted and burned, they contribute to a climate crisis that is costing the public billions in disaster cleanups alone and making the planet less habitable for humans and almost every other form life. But, wild horses?

Then there is the scourge of cheatgrass infestations across more than 60 million acres, an invasive weed from Eurasia spread by heavy livestock grazing. Some might characterize large-scale fire as one of the BLM’s biggest problems, but the real culprit is highly-flammable cheatgrass, which lives for a few brief weeks in the spring before dying and drying to form the perfect tinder to carry flames across sagebrush habitats that under natural conditions would go centuries without a fire

Once the flames roll through an area where livestock grazing has suppressed the native grasses and soil crusts that are nature’s defense against this invader, fire-intolerant sagebrush is eliminated and cheatgrass becomes a vast monoculture that sets the stage for even larger and more frequent fires in the future.

A host of other significant environmental problems plague BLM public lands: 600,000 miles of barbed-wire fences that guillotine sage grouse by the hundreds and impede deer and antelope migrations, mountaintop removal and strip mines where habitats are destroyed utterly with no hope of returning to their natural state, diversion of water for irrigation that in many cases dries up entire streams (the lifeblood of arid lands) and the changing climate with its droughts of increasing length and intensity.

Each one of these problems are of far greater magnitude than issues related to wild horses, which might have a significant effect in a few isolated areas but are kept scarce across most of the 12.7 percent of BLM lands designated for their presence by an aggressive BLM program of roundup and removal.

Perhaps the crowning moment of absurdity in Pendley’s recent statements were his characterization of wild horses as “an existential threat to these lands.” An “existential threat” to BLM lands, by definition, would threaten the very existence of those lands. And that’s precisely what Pendley himself called for when he argued in the National Review that that federal government should sell off America’s Western public lands into private ownership. 

Pendley’s misstatements about wild horses and the magnitude of environmental threats on the lands that his agency manages speaks either to a monumental incompetence and ignorance, or to an aggressive dishonesty and commitment to a “fake news” approach to informing the public about Western public lands.

In either case, the fact that the Trump administration has placed Pendley in charge of the nation’s largest public lands agency attests to its commitment to sacrificing our environment, our wildlife and our public lands on the altar of corporate greed.

Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and executive director with Western Watersheds Project, an environmental conservation group dedicated to protecting and restoring watersheds and wildlife throughout the West.