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This week in ass-grabbing journalism (Part II): Wild horse lies, and the media that spreads them.

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False narratives on wild horses have spread widely in the media. Can Snopes, the definitive fact-checking site make it stop?

Despite the media’s present war on “fake news,” it fluorishes, particularly on the wild horse issue, a red-meat topic that trends quickly, necessitating fast turnaround by reporters with no experience on the topic (and no editors who have it, either); no multiple sourcing; no independent fact-finding or research; and zero accountability. They just grab other similar articles, edit them to avoid the whiff of plagiarism, slap their name on it, and hit “publish.”

I call it ass-grabbing journalism. Here’s my second piece on it: a letter I wrote to Snopes (below), asking it to factcheck errors in wild horse media coverage, much of it originating with the Associated Press but also including The Washington Post, Smithsonian, The New York Times and National Geographic, among many others.

Does Snopes debunk false information spread by the media, or only internet schemes spread by trolls on Facebook? Let’s find out.

 

* * * * *

Dear Snopes,

I’d like you to fact-check a false story about wild horses destroying western public rangelands put out by the Bureau of Land Management, the agency that oversees wild horses and commercial livestock grazing leases on federal lands.

For years, this lie has been picked up and spread, primarily by the Associated Press, but also by other media. It is now being used to gin up support for an upcoming Senate Appropriations Committee vote to destroy wild horses in holding and also clear the way for more wild horse removals on public lands, just as it was used to help the same amendment pass the House subcommittee in July.

Interior secretary Ryan Zinke and Chris Stewart of Utah are the main proponents of the budget amendment, which purports to save taxpayers $10 million but is really a cover for continuing to fund the subsidized federal lease grazing program, estimated by numerous environmental groups to waste up to $1 billion of taxpayer funds a year.

Western public grass and forest lands are overgrazed; but they are being overgrazed by domestic livestock grazed under this wasteful leasing program — not wild horses. Cattle on public lands outnumber wild horses by anywhere from 50:1 to 60:1, depending on the specific BLM data used and method of calculation.

The BLM freely distributes wild horse estimates, but withholds livestock figures from reporters, keeping livestock grazing data safely hidden and the grazing program protected for numerous billionaires (Koch brothers, Walton heirs) and corporations (JR Simplot Co.) that hold the majority of leased lands.

Fact-checking by Snopes could expose the number of cattle and sheep vs. wild horses that are out there and how many hundreds of millions acres of public lands cattle graze compared to continually shrinking wild horse territory. Publish those ratios. They’ll show who’s destroying public rangelands: it ain’t the horses.

I, along with a handful of reporters, environmental groups and wild horse advocacy groups have done the hard work to collect this data and tell this story. If you want to save yourselves some time, and talk to me about it, I’ll share my data with you, or direct you to others working to educate the public.

These include the journalist Christopher Ketcham, the environmental writer Steve Nash (whose book on public lands was just published by University of California Press), and environmental groups like Western Watersheds Project, The Center for Biological Diversity, Wildearth Guardians, and PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility), all of whom devote considerable resources to protecting western public lands — for the public’s use.

I’ve reported on this complex and misunderstood policy issue for Forbes, Alternet, Salon and The Daily Pitchfork. Please let me know if I can help.

Sincerely,

Vickery Eckhoff
New York, NY

 

 

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

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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:

https://act.americanwildhorsecampaign.org/p/dia/action4/common/public/?action_KEY=24755

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?
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.

 

 

 

My response to “Wild Horses, BLM and Logical Solutions” FB page

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BLM Wild horses and burros programI got kicked off the Wild Horses, BLM and Logical Solutions FB page after posting James McWilliams’ article on Mustang-Safe beef labeling and sticking around to debate it with the group members there. Don’t lament this, folks. It’s their page. They make the rules. And one of the apparent guiding principles is to center every discussion (and solution) around bringing WHB populations down to appropriate management levels (AML). That is their idea of “logical solutions.” But it isn’t mine.

So I went on over to the BLM’s WHB Program FB page and posted this:

***

“Let’s be real.

AML is all about preserving higher stocking numbers of cattle than wild horses, not about providing ecological balance under multiple uses. Livestock producers keep arguing that getting down to AML and adopting out a few WHB are necessary to reduce overgrazing, preserve public grass and forest land. But they don’t provide proof that it’s horses doing the damage.

There happens to be extensive proof on the other side: data showing the degree to which private livestock outnumber WHB. How long are those looking to remove more wild horses going to pretend this isn’t relevant, and keep trying to silence those who bring it up?

Yes, there are fewer livestock on public lands today compared to years past. This is obviously hard on ranchers. Yes, wild horses need to be managed on the range. But the constant drumbeat of “over AML” “adopt out WHB” “use PZP” and “join the WHB advisory board” won’t remove the giant gorilla in the room: the damage is on the livestock side.

Go look for research to the contrary (you can find a sample here on page 14). What little exists says that, because there’s no historical data on grazing by livestock in HMAs, that pinning damage on wild horses is impossible. Go seek out studies on the negative impact of livestock production, both in the US and globally. A search of Google Scholar turns up thousands of results. Read a sample of these studies (available here on page 13). They minimally mention other species (like wild horses) on the condition of public lands. There’s a reason for that.

The COP21 climate talks now going on in Paris will continue to escalate the discussion, and livestock production, as the public is becoming increasingly aware, has a carbon footprint to rival transportation’s, and a massive water footprint, to boot.

If you want to solve the environmental problems that keep getting threaded into the “over AML” argument, you are going to have to confront this preponderance of evidence.

The public is getting informed, albeit slowly.

Why not address the issue within the livestock sector honestly instead of kicking the can down the road? And part of that discussion needs to be the cost of public grazing allotments, which cost taxpayers much more than the WHB program. Frankly, both are burdens on taxpayers, but the federal grazing program is the biggest of all. There needs to be honest discussion on that. Who wants to participate?”

***

I’m very interested to see who steps forward.

A note to newcomers: I am a writer and journalist published on Forbes.com, Newsweek/The Daily Beast, Alternet, Salon, Laika and the site I run with James McWilliams, The Daily Pitchfork. I used to work for The New York Times, Forbes Inc., Dow Jones and spent some time at The New Yorker and Time Warner. So please do not call me a horse advocate. My only advocacy is to the public and its right to be correctly informed on important policy issues by the media. To this end, I seek out research on the federal grazing program, land use and climate change, as well as data missing from most MSM coverage because it is time-consuming to find and analyze. 

As usual, I welcome your comments. Please be careful with personal attacks, don’t publish long dissertations, and keep the focus on the issues or your comment won’t appear. I always appreciate people who provide specific examples and links when disputing a fact. Thank you for dropping by.

My letter to the editor of the Las Vegas Review Journal

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F. Martin_ Cattle_Wikimedia

On November 12, a Las Vegas Review Journal editorial (“Have some horse sense“) concluded that “humanely euthanizing” wild horses is using “horse sense” to solve the “wild horse problem” outlined by 20 GOP lawmakers in a letter to BLM Director, Neil Kornze. Here’s my response:

Dear Editors,

Your recent editorial, “Have some horse sense,” is missing an important piece of data: the number of private livestock on public range and forest lands compared to wild horses and burros (WHB).

2014 grazing receipts of $17.1 million dollars for both Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and US Forest Service (USFS) grazing permittees translate to 2.1 million cattle. That was the number on 251 million acres of public land managed for grazing by both agencies compared to 56,656 WHB last year. That’s a ratio of 37 cattle for every wild horse.

A side-by-side analysis of that and other BLM and USFS-sourced data is available at http://dailypitchfork.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/BLM_USFS-grazing-analysis_2014_Daily-Pitchfork.pdf

Key findings of that analysis include that only 29.4 million acres (just 12%) of the 251 million acres contain WHB habitat. Cattle and sheep are allocated 97% of the total forage; wild horses just 3%.

Another key finding is the countless studies on the negative impact of commercial livestock production on overgrazing, fires, predator removal, damage to riparian areas and biodiversity, and climate change. Yet no comparable studies exist blaming wild horses. A logical deduction is that researchers don’t tend to study what isn’t a problem.

Further, have you checked what those federal livestock grazing leases lose US taxpayers each year? How does taking in $17.1 million dollars while losing $125 million constitute a wise use of taxpayer funds or “sustainable” land use policy?

Killing wild horses to solve what is essentially a cattle-caused problem isn’t using horse sense; it’s the antithesis of it.

Sincerely,

 

Vickery Eckhoff
Executive Editor
The Daily Pitchfork
Dailypitchfork.org

The New York Times Listens to Some Readers — But Not All

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An open letter sent to New York Times public editor, Margaret Sullivan (public@nytimes.com):


Less than a year ago,  I examined 19 reader complaint letters sent to The New York Times regarding errors in the article “As Wild Horses Overrun The West, Ranchers Fear The Land Will Be Gobbled Up” (Sept. 30, 2014). I also collected the editors’ corresponding responses. No corrections were made.

Public Editors JournalWhat I learned from this exercise is that your statement that “Times leaders are listening to their readers” (from your October 7, 2015 article, “Readers Will Rule, Says The Times, So Don’t Be Shy), doesn’t extend to readers who happen to be wild horse advocates, wild horse groups and anyone critical of The Times’ wild horse coverage (including, in this case, three PhD’s and two academics, one of whom published two New York Times op-ed pieces, five books and is a columnist on food and agriculture for Pacific Standard).

The reader complaints that I examined looked at various flaws in the Times article, but converged almost unanimously on a single point: the lack of data supporting both headline and storyline of “wild horses overrunning the West.”

The Times writer (David Philipps) cited rising wild horse population estimates from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) website; but he did not provide any corresponding livestock population stats. (The BLM doesn’t share these, even when asked; but they can be calculated from grazing receipts and AUMs listed in the BLM’s online section on “livestock grazing”, as well as through the agency’s rangeland administration database).

Phillips instead took the ranchers’ word that land was being “gobbled up” by wild horses.

One might ask how a reporter can determine that wild horses are overrunning and out eating cattle without knowing how many of each and, at the very least, providing photographic proof. Phillips’ article offered neither.

The complaining letter writers rightly pointed out that cattle do in fact outnumber wild horses by a significant margin, not just in protected wild horse habitat, but on millions of acres of public rangelands that are leased to private livestock producers and sought by energy and mining companies (but which have zero wild horses on them).

The problem arose, though, when they couldn’t cite sourced figures to back that up. Had they done this, The Times would have been hard pressed to stick with the story’s premise of “wild horse overpopulation” causing extensive rangeland damage.

For the record, 2014 BLM grazing receipts put the ratio of cattle “livestock units” to wild horses out West at roughly 17:1 (this translates to a ratio double that number since a livestock unit, as defined by the BLM, consists of a cow and a calf).

AUMs (a metric used by the BLM to indicate how much privately owned “livestock units” eat on public lands in a month’s time) can also be converted into a ratio of cattle/livestock units to horses. On land managed for grazing by the BLM and the US Forest Service, it’s 23:1 — again, a lowball figure given that a single animal unit = a cow and a calf (or five sheep).

By siding with ranchers and ignoring the subject of livestock totals, The Times turned a deaf ear to evidence provided by readers that would have undermined the headline “wild horses overrunning the west”and the story that followed it.

Advocates do the kind of research that reporters do not have time for. They read studies, go to BLM meetings, do FOIA requests, observe roundups, write letters and articles, start petitions, visit their elected representatives and follow new developments — day in and day out. But they are given short shrift in the media’s “he said/he said/he said/she said” telling of the wild horse story. Yes, they need to be cross-checked, as any source does — ranchers, included.

My experience, having followed social media groups on the wild horse issue, as well as writing more than two dozen articles on wild horses, public-lands grazing, and the horse slaughter trade in the US media*, is that the advocates’ knowledge of this issue is an asset to the public that journalists would be wise to embrace. (*Forbes, Newsweek, AlterNet, Salon, Huffington Post)


“I hear about improving commenting, about intrusive or confusing advertising, about the importance of journalistic fairness, accuracy and straightforward truth-seeking above all, and about the public-service mission to hold powerful people and institutions accountable. (And not necessarily in that order; in fact, probably the opposite.)”

— The New York Times Public Editor, October 7, 2015


The Times, for its part, heard from 19 different voices on the “she said” side, all pointing to a serious flaw in its wild horse reporting — and turned its back.

If The Times wants readers to “not be shy” about speaking up, heeding their expertise — and making necessary corrections — is a good place to start.

 Sincerely,

Vickery Eckhoff
Executive Editor, The Daily Pitchfork
Dailypitchfork.org

What A Seventh-Grader Taught Me About Wild Horses

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Photo Courtesy of Laura Leigh

There are more wild horses and burros living in long-term holding pens today than roaming free. Who thinks that’s a good idea?

Who would have even imagined that 40 years after the passage of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, that we would even be having this conversation? And yet that’s the state of things today, thanks to the Bureau of Land Management.

Don’t spread this around, but I remember when that legislation was passed. I was a seventh-grader, an avid pony clubber,  and I was outraged by what was being done to the mustangs. I was also rabidly anti-Nixon, mostly because of the Vietnam War and also because my dad liked him and I decided that whatever my dad stood for politically, I was against.

Still, the legislation passed while Nixon was in office and even if I didn’t like him as a president,  the passage of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act made me feel as though our government stood for some of the right things. It stood for wild horses and it stood for the will of the American people who overwhelmingly called for the mustangs to be protected. For a moment, I thought it also stood for me because, you know, I was a seventh-grader and a horse lover. And who pays seventh-graders and horse lovers any mind?

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