DELTA, UTAH – Some 100 attendees of the National Wild Horse and Burro Management Summit paid more than $60 (on top of the $275 registration fee) to tour the wild horse corrals maintained by the Bureau of Land Management in Delta, Utah on Tuesday. Though the three-day summit consisted of discussions, research, and advocacy presentations, many – including lawmakers and Utah Governor Gary Herbert, arrived to see the 120+ four-legged residents awaiting adoption there.
Heath Weber, the BLM’s Delta facility manager, told Utah Political Capitol that the adoption process is actually a contract between the adopter and the government, one that allows for the safety and appropriate care for the animal over a period of one year while the horse is at its new home. Once that process is completed, a title to the animal is transferred to the new owner. Before the animal’s title transfer to private hands is finished, all health checks and boarding arrangements are verified so that when the BLM finally turns the animal over, a healthy animal is certified. Weber said that up to four animals can be transferred to one owner within that year-long period.
On hand with the summit security detail was Millard County Sheriff’s Deputy Loe who said that he had recently adopted a mare and a yearling over the past months and expressed his satisfaction with the adoption program. Best practices at the Delta facility include corrals, pens, alleys and processing chutes that align with designs introduced by the famed animal advocate, Dr. Temple Grandin of Colorado State University. Additionally, government veterinarians are included in this process so that each grown animal, “weaner” and yearling are properly cared-for and supervised.
A Controversial Cloud Over Present Herd Management
Though best practices have been attempted by the BLM given the requirements of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 (amended as recently as 2006), many critics, wild horse advocates, and researchers have indicated that a revision in management efforts is long overdue, mainly because of compounding populations and range forecasts. The official summit position was that “current management strategies are not working,” a sentiment echoed by Utah Republican Congressman Rob Bishop (audio follows in Lesofski clip). Since the inception of the federal law, a myriad of official policy changes have occurred, most recently a 2013 review by the National Academy of Sciences validating the additional mustang populations and threats to rangeland and a 2016 Mare Sterilization Research program that was terminated due to public opposition and multiple lawsuits.
Some believe that the herds need no management at all and describe the BLM’s efforts as appeasement to wealthy ranchers who want more rangeland subsidies for cattle production. Ranchers respond by saying that additional range for cattle keep retail beef prices down for consumers. In truth, some very different impacts on the range are evident between cattle and horse species cited by the researchers. When U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists close a range area due to overgrazing, it is almost always as a result of overuse by privately-owned cattle using permits some call “rancher welfare.” Occasionally areas are closed because of habitat conflicts with endangered species.
Allegations of Secrecy with the USU Summit
What had the general public and wild horse observers on the Western range concerned was the lack of information about the summit where public monies were being accessed to organize the event. On Tuesday, at least one reporter had contacted the Governor’s office to respond to what had been described as Utah Governor Gary Herbert’s media availability at the Delta corrals. Late on Monday night, the notice was amended to indicate that the Governor’s appearance was not open to the press because the event was not organized by Herbert’s staff. The flyer for the event indicated that participation was by “invitation only,” leaving many to wonder how and to whom the conference invitations were issued.
Lorri Barnett had driven to the Delta corral from Riodoso, New Mexico and was eager to know more about the summit and the adoption process. The event flyer indicated that summit participation was by “invitation only,” and organizers said that those who had expressed a viable interest in prior and related range management events were on that list to be included. The problem experienced by those who didn’t have the ability to pre-register was that they felt that they had no seat at the table, even just to respectfully listen and learn about the public policy direction. Since the courts have rejected controversial “Ag Gag“ laws, many feel that the public should have acccess to more information, not less. Jen Howe of Torrey, Utah wondered, “Why all the secrecy? I can’t believe they can get away with this.” Howe has been captivated with wild horses in the west since moving to Utah several years ago, and she maintains that the herd she monitors in Emery County are not in any danger of malnourishment or disease at all. She prefers that they be left alone.
Utah State University’s Berryman Institute had been identified as the official summit organizer, but on Tuesday, BLM personnel were the only public Information officials available for information. At BerrymanInstitute.org the “News and Events” link showed no reference to the summit. Only after registered attendees had left in their chartered buses for lunch were several members of the public allowed to tour the corral alleys and holding pens to see the wild horses, “weaner foals” and yearlings and their specific holding areas. For inventory control, each mustang and burro wears a neck identification number brand and corresponding necklace which is integral to the adoption process and allows horse placements to be tracked by BLM officials. Many summit attendees involved with Tuesday’s tour in Delta were in youth organizations like 4H and Future Farmers of America.
On Wednesday in the Utah capitol, Marriott security personnel and the Salt Lake City Police Department were at the summit registration desk to ward off potential disruptors, although none were in sight. All of the summit proceedings were occurring behind closed doors with some media access having been prearranged. Dr. Terry Messmer, Director of the Berryman Institute, had introduced a brief press event for access to elected officials, advocacy groups and researchers who were all part of his summit. When asked why some believed that the overly restrictive security had made basic information difficult to obtain by the public, Messmer said that he could only respond to the instructions of an unidentified “steering committee.” When asked for names of those on the committee, Messmer declined and said he didn’t have the authority to disclose the names of the organizers. Again, the Berryman Institute “News and Events” link showed no reference to the event.
Messmer indicated that all of the proceedings would be available to the general public via online video by August 25. It is unclear if the summit security, including convening at the Marriott City Creek hotel rather than at Utah State University or a Salt Lake City public venue was the result of anticipated disruption or because of invited guests such as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke (who was not present) or the Utah Governor. During the lunch hour on Wednesday, a crowd of various advocates gathered on the street in front of the Marriott to protest their exclusion from the event. “We invited those individuals and organizations who had previously expressed interest and expertise on the topic,” said Messmer. At that time, he also said that people from rangelands.org and wildhorserange.org were involved in planning the summit.
Concerned mustang advocates assert that some of the horses eventually find their way to slaughterhouses in Mexico, a claim that the BLM representatives vigorously deny. Eric Reid, an official at the BLM’s Delta facility said that the horses are trucked from various facilities on a pre-established route throughout deliveries to adopters and other BLM corrals in several western states.
Presenters On the Record
At the hastily organized media availability on Wednesday, several one-on-one interviews were coordinated for credentialed media representatives whose summit-issued badges were collected at the end of the event. Among those on hand were Drew Lesofski, Chairman of the American Mustang Foundation based in Nevada, who indicated that his organization wanted to be able to understand what policies would be developed and to effect some viable policy input. “The law is what the law is, and if we can’t change the law and if the Secretary [of the Interior, Ryan Zinke] is not able to get his priorities through [congress] that means that there’s only two things left. We are either going to allow wild horse populations to grow on the range and cause the damage that we see they’re doing now in an uncontrolled state, or we’re going to store horses.” Lesofski said that he personally believed that mass euthanasia was an unacceptable solution to compliance with the law. Some, like filmmaker Ben Masters, have advocated this “ultimate solution” at similar conferences and attended this one. Messmer’s summit gathering, a significant effort at providing a forum for discussion, was the most recent attempt to bring some light to the subject. As it was, only a limited few were able to participate in the decision making.
Lesofski’s organization is also opposed to what they term as “glorified feedlots,” such as the one in Delta and has proposed providing “private, off-range pasture for up to 50,000 wild horses and burros.” The AMF also endorses long-term birth control administered on-range as an important component of managing wild horse populations. They claim that this can be done in a more cost-effective manner than presently furnished by the BLM. One of the participants listed on promotional materials was Rick Danvir, a former wildlife manager for Deseret Land and Livestock in Woodruff, Utah, a wholly-owned asset of the Mormon church. Danvir was not available during the media scrum.
While Messmer indicated that future events covering the topic would be expanded to include more who are interested in policymaking and resources for the mustangs and wild burros in the American west, he was unable to indicate when or who would be heading that future effort or how many steers would be on the next steering committee.