Reprieve for Colorado Wild Horses: Part II: Can’t Let ‘Em Roam, Can’t Round ‘Em Up

Earlier this month, the White River Field Office (WRFO) withdrew its plan to remove the West Douglas mustangs in northwestern Colorado.  This is the second in a series exploring the controversy surrounding this herd. In the previous post, From Western Colorado wrote that BLM began making management decisions about the West Douglas herd in 1974; however, it is uncertain exactly when the initial Management Framework Plan (MFP) was written. There is no date on the document; however, references within the plan suggest that it was written in 1975 or early 1976.

 Back to our story…

 According to the initial MFP, two factors influenced BLM’s administrative decision to zero-out what is now known as the West Douglas herd. First, the carrying capacity of the range east of Douglas Creek had not yet been determined and BLM believed that transferring the horses living west of Douglas Creek into that area could overburden the land. Secondly, BLM believed that the horses west of the creek were migrating from their original range due to increased oil and gas activity. But, the same document stated that “oil and gas exploration, oil shale development, and saline minerals development with sufficient stipulations to protect the wild horse habitat” east of the creek was okay p. 7). The agency went on to say, “It is not presently known the degree of impact that the minerals program has on wild horses in the area”  (p. 7). In other words, studies about the impacts of energy exploration on wild horses did not exist for either herd yet stipulations were planned to mitigate those impacts solely for habitat east of Douglas Creek.

 In 1981, BLM’s White River Field Office (WRFO) established the Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area, combining the Piceance Basin herd and the horses east of Douglas Creek. The initial Herd Management Plan once again supported removal of all horses west of Douglas Creek. Rangeland studies were included in this plan but only for the Piceance-East Douglas horses. For all intents and purposes, the West Douglas horses ceased to exist…on paper.

 Four years later, the WRFO updated its overall resource management plan, which reiterated total removal of the West Douglas herd; however, concerns were raised that this decision was  informed by the amount of forage allocated to livestock on the grazing allotments within the West Douglas Herd Area (WDHA). BLM stated that the proposed removal was based on a lack of physical boundaries to the south and west of the HA, which allowed the horses to migrate off their designated range, and had nothing to do with livestock grazing (p. 2).

 The American Mustang and Burro Association (AMBA) appealed this decision to the DOI’s Interior Board of Land Appeals (IBLA) as a violation of the 1971 Wild Horse and Burro Act. The appeal was denied for technical reasons, effectively drawing attention away from grazing concerns. In early 1997, however, the WRFO updated its management plan for the Twin Buttes grazing allotments within the WDHA and said the mustangs must go. Again, AMBA appealed, stating that giving all the forage to livestock was the basis for removing the mustangs. And, again, the appeal was denied. The BLM insisted that the decision to remove the West Douglas horses was based on projected energy development, as stated in the mid-1970s: ”[None] of the planning documents…established any relationship between removal of wild horses from the West Douglas Herd Area and forage allocation” (p. 3). But, why wasn’t that relationship established?  Because the studies had never been done.

 The WRFO also updated the overall resource management plan (RMP) in ’97  but  Colorado State BLM officials were concerned that the RMP might not accurately justify total removal, and with good reason. Not only were there no studies to back up the decision but there was also another legality to consider. In 1989, the Animal Protection Institute of America appealed round-up decisions in Nevada to the IBLA with surprising results. According to the BLM/USFS 8th Report to Congress: Administration of the Wild Horse and Burro Act (1990), the IBLA defined the process of determining how many mustangs and burros the range can sustain (AML) as “synonymous with restoring the range to a thriving natural ecological balance and protecting the range from deterioration.”  In response to the Nevada appeals, the IBLA ruled that all wild horse and burro removals must be supported by rangeland studies: 

[S]ection 3(b) of the [1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act] does not authorize the removal of wild horses in order to achieve an AML, which has been established for administrative reasons rather than in terms of the optimum number which results in a thriving natural ecological balance and avoids a deterioration of the range (p.2).  

From 1974 -1997, however, the WRFO maintained what was essentially a zero AML and, other than census flights and a few partial round-ups, did not actively manage the West Douglas herd.  This explains the lack of documentation. The AML was set at zero and since there weren’t supposed to be any horses out there, BLM did not engage in management practices, such as herd and habitat monitoring or manipulating forage and water, to support the horses.

So, in 1999 Colorado State BLM officials instructed the WRFO to review the 1997 decision, which resulted in the proposed amendment to the 1997 Resource Management Plan, dated July, 2004.  Even though the 1997 RMP temporarily provided for a herd of up to 60 horses in the West Douglas HA, the proposed amendment, which called for “the creation of a [West Douglas] Herd Management Area,” was the first time BLM explored the idea of permanently and actively managing horses there. Unfortunately, the WRFO denied the amendment, upholding the decades-old, unsubstantiated decision to remove the West Douglas herd. This has led to a brushfire of litigation, which has now spread to local ranchers; yet the horses still roam free. Was the denial of the proposed 2005 amendment a help or a hindrance to the BLM?

 Stay tuned for Part III: Wild Horse Dilemma Buffalos BLM

And, thanks for listening…

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