Well, the day I have been dreading for over 3 ½ years has finally arrived. I suppose I should be thankful they waited so long instead of having it show up in August, but really, I would have been perfectly fine waiting forever only to have it never show up.
What am I talking about? The BLM has released a scoping statement for the White Mountain Wild Horse Herd. This is the first step of the process. Basically, they are announcing their intentions. The public has the opportunity to comment, at which point the BLM goes back and write a more detailed Environmental Assessment. There is another comment period on the EA. After that the BLM, having done their bureaucratic due diligence, proceeds to do whatever they want.
Exciting prospect, I know. The short version is that the scoping period (now) is the time when the public has the best chance of influencing the BLM in their decisions. Anything after that point generally requires lawyers and a strong constitution to wade through all the BS the BLM likes to fling.
I am going to (hopefully) break everything down for you. From there, you can email your personal thoughts and comments to: email@example.com. The subject line should be titled “WMLC Scoping Comment”.
The BLM’s plans for White Mountain involve a research project performed by the United States Geological Survey (USGS). The USGS is actually planning similar studies in another 5 HMAs in the West, though I do not know which ones yet.
Here’s what it looks like:
Step 1: Helicopter Roundup this summer/fall. The BLM plans to remove horses in White Mountain and their neighboring herd Little Colorado, bringing White Mountain down 205 horses and Little Colorado down to 100 horses.
Step 2: The USGS will be putting radio collars on some mares and tail tracker tags on some stallions in both herds, and then releasing them. From there the USGS will be studying the horses, their movements, birth rate, death rate, etc. The BLM will be doing… whatever the BLM does when they’re not removing horses. This is the USGS’s show.
Step 3: A second helicopter roundup would be conducted in White Mountain in 2017. 30-50 mares will then be spayed and released. The “ideal” number will be roughly 50% of the mares in White Mountain. Little Colorado will be left alone.
Step 4: The USGS will study birth rates, death rates, etc. and determine the “effectiveness” of spaying horses in the wild.
Yeah. I wasn’t too thrilled either.
Now that you know the plan, I’m going to break it down further. You can find the FAQs on all of this here. Please note that some of the information in this blog does not show up in the BLM’s fact sheets. I had a telephone conversation with Jay d’Ewart, the Wild Horse Specialist for these herds, and he is the one who gave me the scoop on said details.
Before I really talk about radio collars and spaying methods, though, I want to talk about White Mountain itself.
By my estimate, there are 230-255 horses in this herd. That number does count 2015 foals (BLM data generally does not). How do I know this? Well, my Math loving friend, I’m glad you asked!
My love affair with White Mountain started in 2010. In 2011, I got serious, and have been tracking White Mountain ever since then. I have spreadsheets. Ohhh do I have spreadsheets.
Right now there are 210 horses that I have located and can actively track on a yearly basis. Broken down, this amounts to 130 stallions/colts, 79 mares/fillies, and one random gelding. I consider that 210 to be a generous number since it includes multiple bachelors stallions who I suspect, but cannot verify, have died. Bachelors can be sneaky that way, so it’s better to play it safe and assume they are hiding out somewhere.
So how does that 210 horses turn into the 230-255 number? The BLM inadvertently made my life very easy when they freeze branded every mare they released in 2011. Yep, all 51 of them have a clear marker. This gives me an accurate measure as to how much of the herd I can actively find and keep an eye on. Specifically, I know how 86% of this herd rolls, because I know 44 of those 51 PZP’d mares (41 of whom are still alive).
From there we just take the 210 horses that I know, and estimate that the remaining 14% have a similar reproduction rate and tada! Roughly 244 horses are roaming around if you assume a lower than average death rate. I suspect the number is closer to the 235 mark, personally, but that’s just me.
The other thing that you should pay attention to is the part where there are 130 stallions versus 79 females. In the last roundup, the BLM performed a sex ratio adjustment, in which they released 98 stallions, but only 51 mares. As if that wasn’t bad enough, every single year since then White Mountain mares have given birth more colts than fillies. In 2014, for example, there were 21 foals born, and only 6 of them were girls. I don’t know why or how, but clearly it is a problem that ain’t getting better anytime soon.
If I am getting long-winded about the numbers because it is important to me that everyone reading this understands that when it comes to White Mountain, I know my stuff. I know these horses both as individuals and as statistics. I firmly believe it is essential for wild horse advocates to use both our hearts and our heads if we are to help these horses – we need sentiment and logic.
At the same time, I am… emotionally compromised, compromised in a way that I could only ever be with White Mountain.
Okay not back to the details of the scoping.
Let’s start with the roundup. While the EA does not mention removing horses in White Mountain, Jay reports that they are planning to do this. The goal is to remove enough horses to put the herd at their low “Appropriate Management Level”, 205 horses total.
Some of the removal plan is the BLM being, well, the BLM because God forbid they not remove horses at every opportunity. Some of it is because they are trying to fix their sex adjustment mistake in 2011 and get the mare to stallion ratio closer to 50:50 (it’s currently around 62:38).
In order for the USGS study to be accurate, they need the herd to be as close to natural as possible. I’m skeptical that reaching 50:50 is possible because frankly, there aren’t 100 females out there right now. When I pointed that out to Jay, he didn’t disagree with me (and boy is it a freaky Friday when a BLM employees agrees with me) and said the USGS mentioned that concern as well.
Here’s what that means: If there is to be a removal, then the BLM cannot take a single mare. From the oldest swaybacked, denture-wearing lead mare to the littlest filly, the females are simply more important right now. This would be true even if they were only planning your typical roundup without any of the other drama.
It could also be a problem. Sue Cattoor has explained to me in the past that they do not release mares who have foals at their side. Her explanation was that the ensuing chaos of the bands reestablishing themselves can cause injury to the youngsters. While that may be true, it is equally likely that they like taking foals because foals “don’t count” towards their numbers, meaning that the BLM can take more horses and get away with it.
Let’s go with the injury to foals part, though. Every mare would need to be released, and in doing so, it will be essential to keep this as safe and stress free as possible. It’s not just for the sake of the horses (though let’s be real, that’s all I really care about), but also for the sake of science. If the USGS wants to study a herd in a natural setting, they need to remove as many variables as possible, in order to ensure the study is not biased. Having two helicopter roundups in a row? Taking everything with a baby? That’s going to upset the balance of their study and will impact their results.
Now shocker, this is where I advocate for bait trapping. One of the USGS’s stated objectives is to study “band fidelity”. That will be impossible with a helicopter roundup. Following the 2011 roundup, only one band (Hephaestus and his ladies) got back together again. The rest were scattered and went to completely different stallions.
Bait Trapping is safer, more humane, and effective. White Mountain is not your average anti-social group of horses. Are they more skittish than a herd like the Pryors or Sand Wash? Sure! But not by much. A little more time and effort on the part of the BLM and the Cattoors would help lower the stress levels of the horses and keep the current bands in-tact. All they would need to do is catch one band at a time, collar the horses they want to collar, and release them. Easy peasy.
At the very least, if they are bound & determined to do a helicopter roundup – and trust me they always are – then efforts should be made to keep the bands intact and released as a whole. The 2016 roundup is not going to be a big one. At most, they would be removing 50 horses. Even with a helicopter it would be very feasible to capture, tag, and release. Put a little paint on their booties so Mr. Cattoor and his posse leaves that band alone the next day and it all works out.
If all that sounds like I’m giving up, then don’t worry, I’m not. I am approaching this blog post by assuming all this will happen. We are going down that rabbit hole. If you understand what is at stake, and how the BLM’s thinks their plans will go down, it puts you in a better place to explain why they’re dumb. Just sayin’.
Okay! Moving on to radio collars. Weirdly, I don’t have a problem with this. The BLM tried this back in the 80’s with some Nevada herds and even they admit it was an unmitigated disaster. I won’t get into the details but… yeah. Not good. Because of this, a lot of advocates are understandably nervous about this idea. Heck, my gal pal Lauryn had to calm me down when I first heard it.
Recently, they have developed a different style of radio collar specifically for horses which is much safer (info here). It was field tested and those wild horses didn’t get stuck in things and die in mass that time around so… progress! Also, Jay told me in no uncertain terms that he would tranquilize the horses and cut the radio collars off before he would let a horse die over it and I trust him. I don’t trust the BLM, and okay, ¾ of the time I don’t trust what Jay is saying either, but at the very least I do trust Jay on that point.
The plan to put tail trackers on the stallions is also a precaution. The way stallions fight make even the best radio collar a potential hazard.
In an ideal world, radio collars would not be necessary because the federal government would act like grownups and more time would be spent on in the field monitoring instead of roundups. This is not an ideal world. If a few radio collars means that the BLM starts doing a little more research and they can be worn without posing a safety threat to the horse wearing it, then what does it really hurt?
With that said, I personally would strongly advocate that any collars have a breakaway feature. Why risk a single mare getting snagged in the taller sage in the draws or stuck on a gas line post when she goes to itch herself? Again, this herd really isn’t that hard to keep an eye on. Seriously. If one girl from another state can keep track of them on her free weekends, I think the BLM and USGS can manage with a few escape artists finding a way out of their collars.
I cannot accept a single mare dying as a result of a collar. Breakaways would help take that risk away.
Then there’s the elephant in the room: spaying. Oh boy is that a terrifying word. There are two reasons why spaying is the stuff of nightmares for a wild horse lover. 1. Mares not surviving the procedure and 2. Once this can of worms is opened, there’s no going back.
We will start out with the spaying itself. Spaying a horse is not as simple as a cat or dog. The classic method of spaying is a surgical procedure that removes a mares ovaries entirely. It is dangerous with a long recovery period and a high risk of infection and other problems. To prevent those risks, spaying domestic mares is typically done in a sterile area with very careful monitoring and follow-up for weeks afterwards.
Crazy enough, when we are talking about doing this with wild animals, a safe surgical environment and proper aftercare aren’t really options. Spaying experiments were performed on the Sheldon wild horse herd some time ago. The details on those experiments are kept quiet and shady, and for good reason. What we do know is that at least 10% of the mares did not survive the procedure. The mares who did live through the surgery were released within a couple days of the ovariectomy being performed, so the reality is that nobody knows how many died of infection and sepsis.
There is a different method of spaying that has seen some technological advancement in the last few years, which uses laparascopy (a camera) as part of the procedure. The short version is that instead of surgically removing the ovaries, they use the camera to find & cut off blood flow to the ovaries, making the organ non-functional. From what I’ve read online, the mares should still be kept under observation for at least a week, but there is a much lower risk of infection or other complications. It’s also described as “more comfortable” which I would buy, since, y’know, they aren’t sawing into the mares or trying to take her ovaries out through her hoohah.
With that said, a procedure like that is only going to be as good as the vet who is doing it.
I also cannot find any research that discusses how spaying using either method would affect a pregnant mare, and what risk it might present to the unborn foal. In theory, the uterus would probably be just fine and the foal could develop without problems. But I’m not a biologist and I just don’t know.
There is also the question of how this will affect their wild behavior. With PZP, the mares still go through their heats. If a mare is spayed, that won’t happen anymore. I don’t know what that would mean for the band structure. Will stallions still fight to keep mares who never go into heat? Will mares have a reason to stay with a stallion or will they go it alone? Form their own anti-stallion, mare power groups? Who knows? It’s impossible to say.
Now the scoping document says that they want to spay 30-50 of the mares out there. What they actually mean is that the plan is to spay 50% of the mares.
This is the part where my big mouth is about to get me in trouble. Again. Oh but I do love this part…
If we knew that the mares could be spayed with no loss of life, if I trusted the BLM to use this responsible, and if I knew they were going to be very selective in who they spay, I could almost live with this. Yeah, I know. Please don’t tar and feather me.
There are mares in White Mountain like Elaine and Makenna who have foaled every year since 2012. That happens sometimes when PZP is introduced into a herd. The “producers” end up foaling more frequently than they usually would because they have to pick up the slack for all the barren mares. As the herd is now, both those mares are well represented with sons and daughters.
The analytical part of my brain recognizes if neither of those mares foaled again, it wouldn’t hurt the genetic viability of the herd any more than if they continued to foal but the BLM constantly removed all their kids. There is no happy solution to maintaining genetic viability either way – not with the BLM in charge.
The problem is that this isn’t a magical fairytale world where Rachel calls the shots. I could make a list of mares like Elaine & Makenna, sure. But the BLM? They’re flying blind. They don’t know who is related to whom out there. The selection process for spaying would be completely random. The odds are good that they wouldn’t just spay Elaine. They’d spay her, spay both her daughters Verity & Helen, remove August and her 2015 colt, and call it a day. Her legacy would be eradicated from the range.
Similarly, I know that they will totally spay mares like Sil or Ponderosa. Because the BLM doesn’t know that those mares have not had any surviving foals from 2011 to the present. Or they’ll spay Dakota Rose and take both her boys, never knowing any better.
So in other words, on a purely intellectual level, I can almost understand the argument for careful, selective spaying of mares if it could be performed safely with minimal risk to said mare. However, I do not trust the BLM. This is an extremely powerful tool with no take-backs. If a mare is taken off of PZP, there is a chance she will be able to foal again. If a mare is spayed, it’s over. If there is a drought, a brutal winter, if the BLM “accidentally” spays too many… we can’t go back and fix it to help level the population out.
This carries over into the fact that we must take a good long look to see the forest through the trees. This is about more than White Mountain. If this study is successful, it will impact every wild horse herd in the West. Maybe they will use spaying responsibly in White Mountain. They want this study to go well, so at the very least I know that they will be extremely careful. But in Nevada? In Utah? They’ll spay everything they can catch.
In a world where we are still fighting over the idea of having a non-reproducing herd in a designated HMA, this could be endgame.
Is it worth saving “my” herd if it means the end of so many others?
And truly, this is where I must lay my soul bare and confess that I don’t know how to stop this.
I don’t have the answer. I don’t have a call to action, or instructions on what you should say to the BLM. The original Consent Decree said they were going to spay and geld every single horse in White Mountain. I can fight that. I’ve spent 3 ½ years preparing to do so. This? Not so much.
Maybe it’s because Divide Basin & Salt Wells broke me more than just a little. I’ve been to roundups. It’s a terrible thing to witness. There’s chaos and squealing and injury. The horses lives are turned upside down, shook to pieces, and yet somehow those that remain pick up and carry on. It’s ugly and messy but some horses are released and eventually, normalcy returns. No matter what you see, you can still hold on to the hope that some of the horses you know and love do get to go back. It doesn’t make you feel better, exactly, but it’s something.
Salt Wells wasn’t like that. Salt Wells was watching every horse I’ve known, photographed and enjoyed, and hundreds more that I’ve never met driven into a draw where they hit a trap that meant the total end of life as they knew it. Nobody was released. It didn’t matter if you were a bright eyed yearling or noble older stallion, lead mare or foal. Everything that was there was just… gone.
And I don’t know if my heart could survive is the same thing happened with White Mountain.
I didn’t know the Salt Wells horses half as well as I know the ones in White Mountain and still, the mere memory is still making me tear up. White Mountain was condemned for the same reason that Divide Basin & Salt Wells were condemned. The horses had the nerve to born on checkerboard land, an outdated idea from a time long forgotten by anyone who isn’t a Sweetwater County rancher getting fat on our public lands.
I know this is a bad plan. If you found my blog, then odds are good that you know this is a bad plan too. It cannot be allowed to happen. We kill all the predators and then maim all the prey and for what? To put European sheep in the middle of a high altitude desert. Cover-up all your screw ups by making even more mistakes. It doesn’t matter what you do so long as the ends justify the means. Isn’t that the true American dream?
At the very least, now you have the facts and hopefully a better understanding of the BLM’s schemes. Comments are due by Thursday January 14th. So you don’t have to go scrolling up through my blog again, I’ll reiterate to email your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org with “WMLC Scoping Comment” in the subject line. Please try to find the time to make your thoughts and opinions known. The horses need your help.