I’ve made a subspecialty out of writing to journalists about wild horses and, more importantly, cattle.
Below is a letter I wrote to Matthew Shaer of Smithsonian, whose May 2017 article, “How the Mustang, the Symbol of the Frontier, Became a Nuisance,” is typical of how journalists cover wild horses. It is also typical of what senators can expect to hear today, June 21, when U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke testifies before the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee in support of the Trump budget plan, which will lift Congress’ ban on removing protections for wild horses and burros and selling them for slaughter.
This is not journalism that speaks truth to power. My solution is to speak truth to journalism. Here’s my letter, dated May 5, 2017:
Dear Mr. Shaer,
I read your Smithsonian article, “How the Mustang, the Symbol of the Frontier, Became a Nuisance,” with interest. I have been writing about wild horse politics and roundups, as well as the livestock and slaughter industry and the related topic of subsidized public lands ranching since 2011 (for Forbes, AlterNet, Salon, Newsweek, HuffPo and my own web site, The Daily Pitchfork).
And I have to disagree completely with your article’s (and your sources’) claim of too many wild horses “eating ranchers out of house and home” and causing long-term damage to rangeland, based on data I’ve provided, below.
To know who (or what) is causing long-term damage to rangeland, you have to do a historical head-to-head comparison of livestock vs. wild horses out grazing on public lands. The BLM provides data to do this, but the livestock side of it is buried in its Livestock and Grazing web pages — where journalists pressed for time and unfamiliar with the BLM and ranching do not know to look. The BLM and ranchers, for their part, are not anxious to have them find it, either.
Last year, I pulled 13 years of BLM grazing receipts (which I then converted into a headcount of cattle grazing on public lands). I also pulled 13 years of BLM estimates (of wild horses), and computed the following ratios. As you will see, they tell a very different story than the one you published in Smithsonian.
Ratio of cow/calf combinations vs. 1 wild horse. All figures BLM.
2002 67:1 2009 72:1
2003 61:1 2010 59:1
2004 30:1 2011 58:1
2005 40:1 2012 60:1
2006 79:1 2013 53:1
2007 87:1 2014 37:1
2008 73:1 2015 30:1 (30 cow/calf combos vs 1 wild horse)
The way you get livestock totals from grazing receipts is by dividing the receipts by the cost per AUM (animal unit month, or what the BLM charges livestock producers to graze a single cow and her calf for a month’s time on public lands) and then divide it by 12 (months). This gives you the total equivalent number of animal units (cow/calf combinations) grazing vs. wild horses at any given time. Again, all these figures are taken from the BLM’s web pages for wild horses, and for livestock and grazing. The BLM, by the way, tallies animal units for wild horses and cattle differently. The BLM says a cow and her calf equals one AU (animal unit). But it considers a mare and her foal to be two AUs. So you can safely double the above ratios, if you want to make the comparison fair and square.
I ask you how it is possible that 1 wild horse could possibly out graze, out eat, out damage 30 cow/calf combinations (or 60 cattle) in 2015, much less 87/174 (in 2007) or 67/134 (in 2002)?
And this is still likely to undercount the degree to which livestock outnumber wild horses, because livestock grazing receipts are based, not on a direct head count by the BLM, but on self-reported AUMs submitted by ranchers at the end of each fiscal year.
Further, the estimates of wild horses are not based on actual headcounts, but on estimates done long ago that the National Academy of Sciences has deemed “unscientific.” Wild horse advocates say they’re inflated.
My point? If you’re going to use BLM’s numbers to tell a story, don’t just tell the ranchers’ side. The case against them is strong — and if you don’t believe me, go to the websites of Western Watersheds Project, or WildEarth Guardians, or the Center for Biological Diversity and specifically look at their pages on public lands ranching. You will find, not just research on livestock “picking ranges clean of essential plants and trampling streamsides and pond banks, but fouling the water that fish and other animals depend on.” Cattle are doing this. Not wild horses.
My data simply underpins why this is so. Cattle overrun the range. The BLM’s numbers show it, and there’s a reason for you to expose that right now, since Congress, just this past weekend, opened up a backdoor for wild horses to be sold to slaughter based on the false arguments that your story presented.
American Wild Horse Preservation and other wild horse groups report that the House and Senate Appropriations Committees restored language to the 2017 Omnibus spending bill that amends the Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act by stripping them of their federal protections and transferring them to state and local governments ostensibly for use as “work animals.”
Here’s a link to their announcement:
It would be especially brutal for this to happen, because journalists unwittingly misled the public on who is out-eating, out-damaging whom. You have the data now to do that story. And I’d be happy to provide you with other resources and references to help you tell it.
Is that is of interest? Please let me know.
Matt Shaer wrote back:
Hi Vickery:Thanks so much for the email. If I do another piece on wild horses, you’ll be the first one I contact. In the meantime, can I give you the email of the person who runs the letters to the editor page for the magazine?Best,Matt
I emailed the person who runs the letters to the editor page of the magazine, as Matt suggested. That person never responded.
So here’s my prediction:
The media will write more articles just like Shaer’s in the wake of Zinke’s testimony. That coverage will echo power but not speak truth to it and get fed through the media echo chamber. The articles will feature handsome cowboys like Zinke and earnest ranchers and no photos of cattle doing the destructive things that conservationists and the BLM itself has documented cattle doing. And then it will be your turn to speak truth to journalism.
Do it, or wild horses will die.