By Nicole Rivard
Looking up at the towering cliffs and honeycombed rock formations of Leslie Gulch canyon in Jordan Valley, Oregon, on June 1, I feel small, yet my connection to the natural world suddenly feels massive as does my desire to preserve it; I’m more cognizant than ever that humans are just a small piece of the large pie of our ecosystem here on earth.
Living in a densely populated part of Connecticut, sometimes it’s easy to feel disconnected from wild places and underestimate their role in my quality of life (scientific research shows nature is good medicine for stress and depression) and overall health of the planet. However being enveloped by the landscape in Oregon and having the good fortune of seeing wild horses and other wildlife such as pronghorn antelope, a long-billed curlew, a burrowing owl and even a rattlesnake, I was never more grateful to have no cell phone service—unshackling me from my iPhone and the Internet and just allowing me to be present.
Luckily for me my work at Friends of Animals (FoA) is a constant reminder that no matter where you live in the United States, you should be invested in protecting public lands. Remember, this land is your land—however it’s being increasingly commercialized and wildlife is being wiped out. And guess what? The Bureau of Land Management is banking on the fact that Americans, especially those who don’t live out West, won’t notice.
But Friends of Animals is watching. Case in point is our ongoing litigation against the Bureau of Land Management challenging BLM’s August 28, 2016 decision regarding an emergency roundup of wild horses within, and adjacent to Oregon’s Three Fingers Herd Management Area (HMA). As a result of a brush fire that impacted the northern portion of this HMA, BLM removed 150 horses without complying with federal law, and refused any request by FoA to put the horses back now that the land is recovering from the fire. The miniscule number of horses left on the 62, 508-acre HMA—60 at most—are in danger of losing their genetic viability.
In March, a federal judge in Portland, Oregon, granted a request by FoA to undertake questioning of BLM officials regarding the “emergency removal.” This was a huge first step toward stopping BLM from claiming that emergency situations require that horses be permanently removed from the wild.
Now FoA has begun briefing our argument, which maintains: (1) BLM’s decision regarding the emergency gather violates the 1971 Free Roaming Wild Horses and Burros Act (WHBA), which requires that BLM make an excess determination, after consultation with interested parties, before issuing any decision to permanently remove horses from an HMA, and (2) BLM failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) because there is no indication that BLM consulted with the Council on Environmental Quality or made alternative arrangements to comply with NEPA before the emergency gather.
Moreover, BLM’s actions authorized in the decision go far beyond what was “necessary to control the immediate impacts of the emergency.”
The public needs to be aware that the most widely-used method of avoiding laws meant to protect the environment and wildlife is through the use of so-called “Emergency Action.” Since summer of 2016, BLM has engaged in numerous wild horse round-ups by claiming some sort of imminent threat to the horses, usually due to the horses coming to close to roads or suffering from lack of food. While in some cases risks are present to the horses, the fact of the matter is that BLM is merely using the situation as an excuse to permanently remove horses from the land without complying with the law.
As I mentioned earlier, the BLM is hoping no one will notice what’s going on in the remote wilderness of Oregon. But there was no denying the great abundance of appropriate forage that has sprung up throughout the Three Fingers HMA due to record-breaking precipitation that this area has received during winter and spring. In fact, wildlife ecologist Craig Downer, who accompanied me on this trip from May 30-June 5, and who has visited more than 70 HMAs throughout his career, noted that that “he had never seen better vegetation for wild horses,” a remarkable observation.
Of course, such healthy vegetation does not go unnoticed by ranchers, who BLM treats as clients. During a surveillance flight and while driving on passable roads, Downer observed more than a thousand cattle dispersed over the great majority of the HMA, reaping the benefits of a this bumper-crop year in terms of forage... while the wild horses removed last year rot in the Wild Horse Corral in Burns, Ore.
Today, upwards of 2 million cattle graze public lands, and now the government is increasingly authorizing thousands of oil, gas and mineral extraction projects on federally owned properties. The result truly is a crisis—these commercial activities will continue to substantially fragment and reduce the amount of habitat left for western wildlife.
It’s not only a crime against nature, but also against Americans who enjoy outdoor activities. According to the BLM’s own data from 2015, human recreation activities in Oregon alone contributed $526 million to the nation’s economy while grazing in Oregon only contributed $152 million. The BLM in Oregon needs to get its head out of the sand and stop reducing habitat for wildlife and instead encourage the public to engage in wildlife watching, especially when it comes to wild horses.
And I don’t mean by creating more paved roads, I mean by simply putting up some signs to point them in the right direction as their feet touch the earth while hiking.
It is a national disgrace that a BLM employee at the Burns District office in Oregon told me the best place to see wild horses in Oregon is in the Wild Horse Corral holding prison—a disgrace that everyone in America should be appalled by.