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Journalists are in love with cowboys, and so wild horses will die.

June 21, 2017

Vickery Eckhoff

Ryan Zinke, U.S. Secretary of the Interior

Ryan Zinke, U.S. Secretary of the Interior

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.

Sincerely, etc.


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?


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.





Post a comment
  1. June 22, 2017

    Great article and information. What is the total cattle now on BLM and USDA Forest service? Also, people need to know there are also hundreds of thousands on state lands.

    • June 22, 2017

      Again, very sad about the Smithsonian. Much appreciate your work!

  2. grandmagregg #
    June 22, 2017

    There is a legal term for how the BLM operates. It is “Regulatory Capture”. Regulatory capture is a form of political corruption that occurs when a regulatory agency, created to act in the public interest instead advances the special interest groups’ desires that dominate the industry or sector it is charged with regulating. Regulatory capture is a form of government failure and it creates an opening for behavior in ways injurious to the public and in this case injurious to the wild horses and burros that belong to American citizens.

    In addition, the BLM is in clear violation of Title 18; falsifying legal documents. A few of many examples include, but are certainly not limited to, but prove this violation by the BLM’s statements of annual population increases such as the Buckhorn herd area 237% (71 total horses giving birth to 168 foals) in one year and the Black Rock herd area 418% (88 horses giving birth to 368 foals) in one year. Wild horses and burros have an ~eleven-month gestation period and give birth to only one foal. The above BLM annual population increase statements are biologically and mathematically impossible but this is the type of non-credible data being stated by the BLM and provided to Congress and to all of us. Another example of BLM’s mathematics is their statement that the Black Mt. herd area wild burro population before capture/removal was 175 animals and after they captured and removed 80 animals, the remaining population was 635! Since when does 175, minus 80, equal 635? There are many, many other examples of the false and highly deceitful data that BLM provides to the public and to Congress.

    • Sunny #
      August 3, 2017

      Right on!!

  3. June 23, 2017

    Vickery, I wish you could testify before Congress…thanks for all your research and hard work! I will pass this on.

  4. June 23, 2017

    The numbers on public land are incomprehensible. Permits are issued on every bit of public land with grass. Take a drive now before the grass is gone – no it is June, the grass is gone. Last spring I drove and took photos the entire trip through my window – thousands of black cattle everywhere in the landscape – thousands and thousands – through a trip of 6 states.

  5. June 24, 2017

    Reblogged this on Paths I Walk.

  6. June 27, 2017

    I was pleased to read your article – it speaks the truth. I too have been following the wild horses and I think it is a disgrace with the helicopter roundups and the slaughtering. I only wish everyone government official involved with this vote could view clips of this. If they still vote for it they themselves should be voted out since it shows they have no compassion.

  7. hoofandpick #
    June 29, 2017

    I am so glad that there is a journalist that speaks the truth about the wild horses. Thank you Vickery for your hard work, ethics and moral obligation to be truthful about the wild horses living on the range.

  8. greyfel #
    July 11, 2017

    I cancelled my Smithsonian subscription several years ago when some stupid woman wrote an article about the roundups. She said that the horses were not affected by helicopters chasing them. The idiot woman said the copters were like mosquitoes to the horses. I wrote the Smithsonian and got no response. Thank you for your letter and for putting this out for the public.

  9. greyfel #
    July 11, 2017

    Zinke is for slaughter. He is just another Trump henchman.

  10. Gail Smith #
    October 27, 2017

    New understanding (circulating October 2017) of the prion-mediated wasting disease that is affecting deer and elk, and is at high risk of transferring to rangeland cattle reveals horses can help control/cleanse the range of this disease as equines are immune. Horses and burros also forage on bushes and other vegetation that becomes tinder-dry wildfire fuel.
    These benefits of wild horses to the range need to be taken seriously. Adequate numbers of these truly native wild equines are desperately needed on rangeland to allow ecological balancing. Natural processes and predators (and use of PZP in the short term until predator numbers are adequate for balance) can effectively regulate population numbers.
    This is a credible and sound management option. Release of gathered horses will be necessary to ensure adequate population size to deal with disease and fire control. This will also free up/cur taxpayer expenses. The Senate Appropriations Committee needs to address ALL aspects involved in this issue – and recognise the future damage that will be caused if BLM drives to further deplete wild horse numbers. And ENSURE AN ACCURATE HEAD COUNT OF THE POPULATION BEFORE DECISION MAKING …

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Journalists are in love with cowboys, and so wild horses will die. | Straight from the Horse's Heart
  2. Journalists are in love with cowboys, and so wild horses will die. - Wild Horse Freedom Federation

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