The Bureau of Land Management in May published an amendment to the plan that guides decisions in the agency’s Rawlins and Rock Springs offices. In the document, the bureau’s staff revealed the new target population for the federally protected mustang herds in the Divide Basin and Salt Wells Creek: “Zero wild horses.”
The BLM’s plan stems from a lawsuit filed by the Rock Springs Grazing Association. Portions of the Salt Wells Creek and Divide Basin herd areas lie on solid-block, or contiguous, public property, but large sections also fall within the “checkerboard,” a blend of public and private land along the Union Pacific and I-80 corridor. In the lawsuit, the RSGA’s legal team explains how, historically, the grazing association had “tolerated” up to 500 mustangs on the checkerboard region that Congress set aside as habitat for wild horses. The RSGA’s lawsuit marked a change, however. The suit made it plain that the group would no longer tolerate any mustangs on the checkerboard’s private sections.
The suit ended in a mutual arrangement, or consent decree. The BLM actually agreed to remove all of the horses from the private and public sections of checkerboard in Salt Wells Creek and Divide Basin. But they did not stop there. They went on to plan the complete removal of both herds.
If the BLM goes through with its proposal, we will no longer find any wild mustangs on the checkerboard, or on the hundreds of thousands of acres of solid-block public land in either area.
It wouldn’t be the first time that agribusinesses received more than they asked for from the BLM. Shortly after Congress passed the 1971 law that protects the American mustang, the BLM conducted an internal audit of its management practices. The agency’s staff discovered “severe overgrazing” by cattle and sheep. They also conceded that their “objectives were dominated by, and oriented toward, satisfying the wishes, even dreams, of the livestock operators.” The report ends with a call for change. At the time, the BLM’s prescription included a shift toward making “proper allowances” for wild horses, combined with “appropriate reductions” in the forage allotted to stock growers.
The BLM did not take its own advice. In 1971, mustangs were present in 44 regions across the state of Wyoming. Today, they only remain in 16 of those places. If the BLM carries out its current plan, we will find horses in just 14 of the 44 regions where a federal law protects them. In each of the 28 Wyoming herds where the BLM has set “zero” as the “appropriate” number of mustangs, thousands of sheep and cattle continue to graze.
Here we are in the third decade of the 21st century, and the federal agency charged with protecting wild horses is still working to eliminate them from their habitat. We still find our public lands perennially damaged by livestock and the effects of overgrazing. In some ways, very little has changed since the 1970s.
But in some ways, everything has changed. You have to go back closer to 1870 to reach a point where most people in Wyoming could have rightly considered themselves ranchers or cowboys. In the last three generations or more, the role of agribusiness in our economy has only declined.
Wyoming is not a rural state today. At least, not in comparison to others. In Wyoming, we tend to live in cities and towns, with unpeopled public land in between. Mostly, we live in neighborhoods. We wake up in the morning and drive to work. Then on the weekend, we look for ways to find adventure and we lean toward looking for adventures in the out-of-doors. Statistically speaking, Wyoming is the adventure state. We value wildlife and natural landscapes, and we are not alone.
In 2021, we broke records for visitation. In that year, state revenue from recreation and tourism added up to nearly double the contribution from agriculture. The national parks led the boom. They are the pride of the country, but they are crowded, and they don’t even represent the best of what’s available to see and experience in Wyoming. Most people find a herd of bison impressive. The sight of a grizzly will sharpen one’s attention. But a band of wild horses running full-tilt across a rugged landscape in the West? There is nothing on this Earth aesthetically powerful enough to pull your eyes away.
Every time the Bureau of Land Management designates “zero” as the appropriate number of wild horses in a herd, we lose the opportunity to feel our lives enriched by the majesty of the American mustang. Every time the BLM removes wild horses from public land, large groups of us lose the chance to see and experience the most absorbing kind of grandeur that this planet has to offer. To encounter a band of wild horses on a fenceless stretch of prairie is something priceless, of course. It is also easy to picture the lost economic potential when we remove whole herds of mustangs from our public lands.