Calico Mountains Complex horse gather achieves goals

Feb 19, 2010

The highly controversial Calico Mountains Complex horse gather on northern Nevada’s Black Rock Desert has finally wrapped up. Despite multiple protests and a lawsuit seeking permanent injunction to end the gather, 1,922 horses were ultimately removed from the complex which encompasses 550,000 acres of public and private land and includes five herd management areas: Black Rock Range East, Black Rock Range West, Calico Mountains, Granite Range, and Warm Springs Canyon.

Based on aerial reconnaissance by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), an estimated 600 wild horses remain in the complex, achieving the goal of reducing the herd to the low end of the appropriate management level (AML) range of 600 to 900 head established for that area. Prior to the gather, the population was estimated at approximately 3,095 head. Although BLM originally planned on gathering as many as 2,500 horses, drift of the herds into other areas reduced the number of horses necessary to achieve AML.

A joint census is planned for this spring with neighboring California horse management areas to more accurately pinpoint the number of horses roaming in this vast area.

The gathered horses were transported to the Indian Lakes Road holding facility in Fallon, NV, where they are being prepared for the BLM’s adoption program or for longterm holding pastures.

According to Jerome Fox, wild horse and burro specialist at the BLM Winnemucca District office, many of the horses gathered had worryingly low body condition scores, with little to no visible fat detectable. Fox indicated that due to the fair to poor condition of the horses, the gather was necessary to prevent a likely future emergency situation of weak, malnourished horses competing for scanty forage and water resources.

Explained Fox, “With the snow fall that’s there ... I think that ... this coming summer would have been another drouth condition summer. With the number of horses that were out there, plus the 2010 foal crop, I really believe that we would have had a large number of deaths in the summer, and we would have truly been doing an emergency gather. With the lack of forage and water, it would have gone downhill fast.”

On the other hand, the possibility of a heavy spring snow, though it might alleviate drouth, also presented dangers.

Said Fox, “I believe what would have happened, had we got sufficient winter and snow cover to alleviate the drouth for next spring and summer, [is that] we would have had death loss due to a severe winter. Then, if we didn’t get the winter and these horses survived and went into another drouth season, we would have had a large number of deaths due to a drought.”

The animal rights group In Defense of Animals (IDA) is one of the litigants attempting to end wild horse gathers and the removal of wild horses from the range, claiming that these practices are in conflict with the 1971 Wild Free Roaming

Horse and Burro Act. Dr. Elliot Katz, DVM, founder and president of IDA, is not convinced of the gather’s necessity. Katz explained, “I didn’t see in any of the videos that I saw ... any horses that needed to be rounded up because they were starving. To me, there was no reason why the round-up couldn’t wait until the lawsuit proceeded and the judge was able to receive further testimony. I believe the BLM themselves stated that there was not an immediate necessity to round them up at this point, but they went ahead they scheduled it, and it seems they decided to ignore the judge’s wishes.”

Additional controversy has sprung up around the deaths of a number of horses, which have occurred both during or after the gather. According to BLM documentation, as of Feb. 11, the cumulative total of horses dead reached 41: seven at the gather site and the rest at the facility in Fallon. According to BLM, most of the deaths were horses that were in extremely poor body condition because of the lack of forage on overpopulated rangelands. These animals either died or were euthanized by the veterinarian on-site at the Fallon facility. However, several horses died as a result of a change of feed, or because of sloughing hooves, and several mares miscarried fetuses.

Fox remains optimistic that despite some losses, the benefits of the gather far outweigh the costs, with a healthier horse herd resulting:

“To date, we are following our best management practices in ensuring that these animals are treated humanely, that the remaining horses on the range have the ability [to exercise] free and roaming behavior. We’re going to have healthier animals in this area this spring; we’re going to have healthier colts. I think right now that our management practices are sound.”

Meanwhile, the swirling controversy around the management of wild horses continues to simmer. IDA aims to argue in court that the use of helicopters to gather horses is inhumane, and constitutes a violation of the 1971 act. Katz explained the rationale behind IDA’s position:

“The helicopter rounding up is ... a rather terrifying thing for the horses. It puts a tremendous amount of stress on [them]. We felt it was a dangerous situation, chasing them at those speeds over rocky terrain and sometimes icy terrain. They’re in great danger in terms of anything from broken legs to other severe injuries including aborting their fetuses, as over 20 mares did.”

Further, Katz doubts that helicopter pilots are doing all that they can to make the gather a safe and low-stress experience for the horses. He continued:

“From the images that I’ve seen, it’s sort of like the helicopter pilots probably see themselves as cowboys, and the helicopter’s their horse, and ... they’re trying to get these horses in literally as quickly as possible ... without really being considerate of the horses themselves. They do not have to run them, literally, some of them, to death. But they’re like a wild cowboy ... And probably at the same time, they’re ... having a certain amount of fun in the roundup and getting those horses going and it’s probably a high to them, as opposed to taking into consideration the needs of the horses, and not frightening them, not having them run so fast. There is no doubt in my mind it could have been done in a much more humane and less cruel manner.”

At the end of the day, there also remains festering mistrust among animal rights groups over the BLM’s ultimate motives in managing the wild horses. Many such groups believe that BLM is reducing or eliminating the wild horses in order to cater to corporate interests at the expense of the desires of the American voters. Says Katz, “In my opinion [the BLM agenda] is to reduce the numbers ... excessively. It is to make room for cattle grazing, it’s to make room for gas exploration, it’s to make room for various kinds of mining and mineral explorations ... [T] his is reminiscent of how our government treated the Native Americans, when they were forcibly moved onto reservation lands which the government believed had no inherent value, and when our government discovered that there was value, then they were forcibly removed, or sometimes simply wiped out.” — Andy Rieber, WLJ Correspondent