Stampede to Oblivion: The mismanaging of America’s wild horses

Mysteries

Scroll down to watch the 8-part television special George Knapp produced that originally aired on October 10, 2009.

The transcript of the above interview with wild horse advocate Jerry Reynoldson is near the end of this story.

(Photo by Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

MYSTERY WIRE — The Bureau of Land Management is preparing for one of the largest roundups of wild horses in its history, this time in Wyoming, an operation scheduled to begin October 6.

Millions of dollars are spent each year by the BLM to gather thousands of wild mustangs off public lands in western states. Many who have seen the roundups in person are horrified.

“They spend lots of taxpayers’ dollars to hire these helicopters, the same group of people that have been involved for years and years, and the same number of horses get killed in these gathers,” wild horse advocate Jerry Reynoldson said in a recent interview with Mystery Wire. “I wish that more people, regular people could witness and watch these gathers, it would scare the heck out of people to see what’s actually going on. The terror in these horses as they’re running and racing underneath a helicopter for their freedom, which ultimately most of them are going to lose. I mean, it really takes your breath away.”

More than 50 million acres of public land were designated by the Wild Horse and Burro Act as range set aside for the mustangs, but nearly half of those acres have been “zeroed out”, that is completely stripped of horses.  More than 80 percent of those lands are now being grazed by privately owned cattle.

“It’s done for to remove horses to make room for cattle. I mean, anybody that doubts that is really not been paying attention,” Reynoldson said. “Horses were here long before cattle ever populated any of the western United States.”

The mustangs that survive the roundups are held in government corrals, then are shipped to the Midwest, where they are warehoused for the rest of their lives, often on private lands owned by former BLM staffers.  Instead of leaving the horses to fend for themselves on public ranges, the BLM pays landowners millions of dollars per year to feed and water the captured horses.  Thousands of other mustangs are handed over to so-called “killer-buyers” who ship the animals to foreign slaughterhouses where they are processed as food, despite federal laws which outlaw horse slaughter. 

In Nevada, Congresswoman Dina Titus has been a supporter of legislation to keep more wild horses on public land and that it makes financial sense to not conduct the current horse removals.

What is evident is that the status quo management strategies have not worked and it is up to Congress to step in. That is why I have been leading the efforts to recalibrate the Wild Horse and Burro Program budget and policies and dedicate funding towards proven humane birth control.
Removal strategies may seem cost effective in the immediate, but history has shown removals are more costly over time, endanger the animals, and are an unsustainable management policy.

Rep. Dina Titus (D-NV)

Titus and her congressional allies fought to secure funding for fertility control measures, which have proven successful in managing wild horse populations, but millions of dollars designated for such programs have been redirected by BLM into horse roundups instead, according to wild horse advocates.

There are now more horses stashed in private corrals than exist on the open range, something Reynoldson talked about, “We have over 50,000 horses standing in various short term and long-term holdings, it’s costing the taxpayers a fortune for that. And that’s the BLM’s other relief valve, I guess. They think it’s all right to just put these horses in corrals and let them stand around and throw hay over to them in perpetuity for the rest of their lives. Failure here just sticks its head out in so many places. And yet, we never make any changes.”


Stampede to Oblivion. A KLAS-TV investigation by George Knapp and photojournalist Matthew Adams detailing the BLM’s management of America’s wild horse and burro population.
This 8-part documentary originally aired October 10, 2009.

George Knapp
Jerry Reynoldson great to talk to you. You know, I think that wild horse advocates like yourself who’ve been at this a long time had reason for optimism, a new administration, a new BLM director, you thought maybe the wild horses, the Mustangs would get a fair shake? Can you give me a sense of where things are right now and whether or not you’re disappointed with what you’ve heard so far?

Jerry Reynoldson
Well, for those of us that have been at this, as you suggested for a long, long time, there’s there’s no joy in Mudville, so to speak. I don’t see anything that’s changed. I’m not optimistic, I don’t have a lot of hope. They just completed a huge gather at the Sand Wash Basin in Colorado. They gathered close to 600 horses there. I think they go in to Wyoming next week. And the number they’re looking at gathering are 3,550. Right at 3,550 will be one of the largest gathers ever. Those are some of the most iconic horses that we have in the western United States. Of course, I see them all with the same view. They’re all iconic. So there’s a lot of alarm out in the advocate community, to be honest, I read at least 50 to 100 personal messages daily, some of them come from smaller wild horse advocate groups, and a lot of them are our individuals, but there’s a lot of outrage out there. So that would be my current overview George of where things are. Terrible disappointment with the new secretary, Secretary Haaland, as proved to have a tin ear on this thus far. Now, that could change, but be prior to that Colorado gather that I mentioned the sand wash basin, Governor Polis from Colorado and Congressman Neguse also from Colorado, sent letters individual letters into the Secretary’s office and asked that gather be stopped, they were just ignored. We’re used of all the advocates being ignored but when they ignore governors and people in Congress you know it kind of gets your attention you wonder what will ever take to ever change anything?

George Knapp
Yeah, it doesn’t seem to matter Democrat or Republican in the White House Democrats control Congress Republicans control it does not matter it’s always round up season for wild horses.

Jerry Reynoldson
That’s absolutely true you know and this this so called path forward with most people in the advocacy community referred to as the path forward, it’s created a lot of ambiguity around the direction that this program is going to take. There we have some very strong advocates in Congress and of course, we have one from the state of Nevada Congresswoman Titus, who’s done a lot of work along with some of her colleagues to try to include language in the the current interior appropriations bill and they’re looking at things that would create new and reasonable controls on populations. Something to offset this notion that our only out is gather gather gather. And in fact they added some new money which is just sitting there and the BLM has said we’ll let you know later that that money that was intended to go for PCB fertility control programs, it’s just sitting there while the BLM says we’ll let you know what we’re gonna do with that later Well, we already know, most of us, all the money that’s ever been alocated tor PCB or fertility control ends up in the gather pile and is used to gather horses. The path forward is suggesting they’re going to gather 20,000 horses a year for years. Well, when they get that done, there won’t be many left. But along the way the destroying the band structure the herd makeup of all these bands of horses and therein lies what I think will be the ending fate, if you will, for the wild horse populations in the West.

George Knapp
You know what they’ve been using last few years is this word emergency. Oh, we’ve got an emergency on our hands because of drought conditions, we got to gather these horses for their own good. There’s no hearing, there’s no public comment, they just go out and round them up supposedly for their own good. Is that what this Wyoming roundup is going to be, is that an emergency?

Jerry Reynoldson
No, this has been a scheduled round up and they are taking comments but you know that was the case with the recent Colorado gather. They had talked about that gather and then at the last minute it got flipped into an emergency status gather. And as you said, you know that that removes any necessity for for comments and so on. So George they go out on the ground in the midst of this gather, there’s rainstorms going on all around them, plenty of water for the horses, plenty of forage out there and rainstorms. So what did they do? They switched it up instead it’s no longer an emergency gather. It’s now we’re worried there’s not enough forage out here it some of this stuff you know you can make this up if you are trying to create a story, you just couldn’t make up some of this stuff, George. There’s observers on the ground out there in the rain every day, plenty of water all around them but they finally had to cover themselves, they switched it to a concern for forage motivation.

George Knapp
About half of the wild horses in America are here in Nevada. There are a lot of them to Wyoming and Colorado. Nevada has used it as a tourist draw, you know, come to Nevada see the wild horses and you’ve done that you’ve seen them out of the wild as I have and it’s stunning. Those images stay with you forever seeing the wild bands running across the the American West on public lands it’s a memory you never forget. Wyoming, I saw today online they use wild horses as a tourist draw. Come to Wyoming and see the wild horses and yet, in both of those states, they can’t run round them up fast enough.

Jerry Reynoldson
Yeah, we missed the boat completely. I think I told you in a previous interview that many years ago when I was working on the hill, then Governor Kempthorne from Idaho, Republican governor from Idaho and I in a in a personal conversation we’re having at lunch one day, he told me he said boy, he said what fools they are down there. If I had the numbers of horses that they have in Nevada, he said I would have had my staff and people working on ways to market these wild horses, so that the public could come and see them, and we’d be making money off of Jerry. That’s what we’d be doing. Of course, we never had a governor that wasn’t working hand in hand with the cattlemen. So you know, there’s never been anybody that would work that angle. And of course it would succeed. It’s always been there. And we know somebody that’s doing it right now. You know, Madeline has a few thousand horses at her place up at the ranch up in northern Nevada and she’s opened it up to tourists. She has a short season, but she has some people that come in there and they just really enjoy it.

George Knapp
Let’s talk about the nature of these gathers and how it works. It started with you know, I think people forget wild horse Annie (Velma Bronn Johnston) campaigned for this. The public got behind the Wild Horse and Burro Act. It passed Congress unanimously. They set aside 10s of millions of acres that would be forever range that was reserved for wild horses. These roundups that zero out 10s of 1000s of acres, remove all the wild horses from them. Is that done to protect wildlife? Is it done to protect the range? Or is it done to make room for cattle instead of horses?

Jerry Reynoldson
Well, there’s no question George it’s done for to remove horses to make room for cattle. I mean, anybody that doubts that is really not been paying attention. And I don’t say that just to be an anti-cattle person, you know, but that’s been the motivation and we’re now down 27 million acres, we started out with 52 million, I think in the 50s. And we’ve taken away about half of the land in the original designation when the Wild Horse and Burro Act was passed. And if you look at that land, and then what’s happened to it after it was removed from herd management area status for wild horses, it’s all been grazed by cattle. And of course, that’s part of the motivation for the checkerboard moves in Wyoming where they’re getting ready for this big gathering. You know, the BLM says, so hard to manage this because, you know, the checkerboard of private ownership and it’s been this way for a long, long time, George. And so if you look, the BLM continues to perpetuate the myth, frankly, it’s just a lie that the damage on the range is attributable to wild horses. That’s the most absurd thing that anybody could say. Most of the land, including 84% of the land in the current HMAs (Herd Management Areas) is land designated for wild horses, is leased for cattle grazing. So the horses don’t have that land all to themselves that they do have. Never is there any discussion when we talk about these new plans that come together, like the path forward, never any discussion about restoring any of the lands that have been taken away from the horses or finding other public lands that might be appropriate for the horses to be on. I frankly think that when you look at the Wild Horse and Burro Act, what its intent was provisions of the law, I think the BLM has been breaking the law for years, because you know, they’re actually supposed to be preserving and protecting these horses for future generations. I just don’t know how you can gather horses, at the rate that they do, with so little regard for the band structure, and the genetics of these horses, and think you’re preserving them for future generations. I just I don’t I don’t think it’s possible to reconcile those things.

George Knapp
We’ll get into that in a second. The idea again, as you mentioned, that 50,000 estimated wild horses across all these millions of acres, they’re bad for public lands, but two or three million cows are not. It’s ridiculous.

Jerry Reynoldson
Actually, there’s over 20 million cows, George, on the public lands and in the West. And we’ve already talked about this many times, their contribution to the overall beef market in the United States is very, very minimal. It’s not like we’d be in danger of losing a big source of our meat production and food sources if the cattle were reduced, but again, there’s never any discussion about reducing the numbers of cattle. And of course, we know that we’re subsidizing the cattle grazing to begin with. The rate, the $1.27 per AUM (Animal Unit Month) has been charged now for at least 30 years, if not longer. And again, there’s never any discussion to ever change that. Other ranchers that are grazing cattle on private lands are paying 10 times as much, if not more.

George Knapp
You know, we’ve heard the argument Jerry over the years of people who don’t like the Mustangs these are feral horses, they’re not natural, they’re invasive. They’re invasive species, as opposed to cattle, I suppose which you know, we all learned in school about the thundering herds of natural wild cattle in North America is preposterous, no such thing ever existed.

Jerry Reynoldson
Yeah, horses were here long before cattle ever populated any of the western United States. Again, George, you know, some of these things are so absurd that they play on being comedic, but it’s hard to laugh about it when you realize that, as we just previously said that, 10s and 10s of 1000s of horses are not going to be there for the public to see when all the smoke and dust clears. And that is the sadness and the tragic part of the story.

George Knapp
The idea that rounding up horses is ever going to solve the problem is preposterous. You have been an advocate working with Congress, with Senator Reid, and other lawmakers to come up with funds to study the problem to figure out how to fix the wild horse problem, public money taxpayer money spent on these studies. lot of money and they’ve laid out a blueprint on how to scientifically manage these herds so that they can exist forever and not hurt public land. BLM looks at those studies and ignores them.

Jerry Reynoldson
Yeah, I mean, everybody from the National Academy of Science to the General Accounting Office have issued so many reports over the last decade or two. And every one of them, you know, suggests what’s wrong, what the problems are, where improvements can be made. And for the most part, it’s all ignored, it’s all ignored. The strategy has always been singly focused on gathering and removing horses. And you know, to suggest that’s going to change with what they refer to as a path forward is just as crazy. Now they’re proposing building a 4,000 acre, holding corral up in Winnemucca, Nevada, so they can put who knows how many more 1,000 horses up there. So if you look at what they do, as opposed to what’s been recommended they do and what they say that they may do, it’s all geared towards one thing, removing horses, gathering horses. And that hasn’t changed over the 30 years that I’ve been involved in this George, it’s always been their principal mission. And that remains so.

George Knapp
The American public is pretty passionate about the horses, and Americans don’t eat horses, we don’t eat them. We don’t gather wild horses and eat them or turn them into dog food. That’s the law of the land. And that’s been that way for some years now. But the BLM has allowed loopholes to exist so that these killer buyers can scoop them up, get a bounty from the government paying them to take the horses, and then they ship them to Mexico where they are slaughtered and eaten, right?

Jerry Reynoldson
Absolutely. I mean, I haven’t seen the figure in the last year, but it’s been 100,000 horses per year for a long, long time. And Congress has recently passed, one body at least, the SAFE Act to prohibit the transportation of these horses, but it never gets through, it gets close. But it never gets through. And BLM through various things, including the sale authority that was provided years ago, when I was still working on the hill, the sale authority from the Burns amendment, that created a huge loophole for horses to be bought and titled to be conveyed immediately. And of course, one of the first people that bought the first batch was at a slaughterhouse in Ohio three days later. We just continued to ignore the what the realities are on the ground, and the horses pay the price. But now they have new sale authority that was created last year. And the same thing is happening, people are buying more horses than they’re entitled to, they’re going immediately into the slaughter pipeline and showing up at places. We have a lot of wonderful rescue groups that are out there buying them out of slaughter pens as fast as they can. But there’s only so much room these groups have George for the these places. They’re doing wonderful work. And I’ve talked to you about Skydog Sanctuary, up in Oregon. It’s amazing what they’re doing. But you can’t keep up when the BLM is processing 1000s and 1000s and 1000s of horses every year through this same pipeline, and they end up standing in kill pens somewhere. There just aren’t enough groups to salvage and take care and keep that many horses.

George Knapp
Can you explain to our viewers who are not familiar with the intricacies of these issues, why roundups don’t work. What happens to these bands of horses, herds of horses, when they get scattered, rounded up, terrorized by helicopters, run the death, crippled, what happens to their reproduction rates, what happens to their genetic lines?

Jerry Reynoldson
Well, as was the case in the Sand Wash Basin, the recent gather on Colorado, they released back on the range, I want to be careful because I’m not certain of the number. I know it was 50 head and they put some of the stallions back out there. But they have no understanding and no one on the ground that’s looking at the genetics of these herds. For instance, the herds up in Colorado that Ginger Kathrens and the Cloud Foundation have been involved in, they know every stallion out of those bands, they’ve tracked them for decades. And yet, they’re not brought in, they don’t consult with them to say, who needs to be out here, it’s just a flip of a coin. They’re gonna gather this many horses and then will release some of them back. They have no idea what they’re doing when they’re releasing back horses. I mean, those of us in the advocate community are grateful that a few head go back out there. But we have no idea. I mean, just a few people who photograph them, take pictures on the ground may have some inside knowledge of the band structure of these herds. But by and large, there is no science in this is when it comes down to George. They’re removing horses that are critical to the survival and sustaining these bands of horses in places where there’s big, big herds now in Nevada and Wyoming, Colorado. So you know, that’s just another problem. And then we haven’t even got to adoption, which is another huge failure, you know, we the policy should be on on adoptions, not to jump ahead, but the policy should be that you have to adopt out as many horses as you gather every year. We’re not even close. As you know, George, we have over 50,000 horses standing in various short term and long term holdings, it’s costing the taxpayers a fortune for that. And that’s the BLM’s other relief valve, I guess. They think it’s alright to just put these horses in corals and let them stand around and throw hay over to them in perpetuity for the rest of their lives. Failure here just sticks its head out in so many places. And yet, we never make any changes.

George Knapp
You know, rounding them up. These are emergency gathers that terrorize the bands, or sometimes drives the surviving members into reproductive hyperdrive. The genetic lines get destroyed, because suddenly, you know, you have brothers and sisters that are stuck together. It would be like gathering up you and your extended family, we round you all up and put you in a concentration camp. And then some of you get to go back out and we throw some people from other families in there with you. And then how much sense does that make if you’re going to try to preserve a genetic line that goes back many, many generations? It’s terrible.

Jerry Reynoldson
Again, a total contradiction to what their their prescribed mission has been through federal law, George. And when you start talking about how we gather these horses with helicopters. And we run these horses. In a gathering here a couple of months ago four foals, little baby horses were killed in one gather. Now, we just had a real tragic instance, which was all caught on camera, of a foal was killed out in the Colorado gather. There’s no nice polite way to gather these horses with a helicopter. And people have been saying that for years. There are other ways to gather these horses, you can bait trap these horses if you need to gather, the BLM is not interested because they can’t get the numbers that they want off the range as fast as they want to remove them. So they spend lots of taxpayers dollars to hire these helicopters, the same group of people that have been involved for years and years, and the same number of horses get killed in these gathers. I’ll tell you, I wish that that more people, regular people could witness and watch these gathers, it would scare the heck out of people to see what’s actually going on. The terror in these horses as they’re running and racing underneath a helicopter for their freedom, which ultimately most of them are going to lose. I mean, it really takes your breath away, George and you’ve seen it so I’m not telling you anything. But I wish and there’s plenty of outrage out there if you could poll this issue George, among the reality of this issue among Americans I’d guarantee 85% of the people or more will come down on this side of the horses.

George Knapp
You know BLM has these roundups, they pay the same contractors year after year who are often ex-BLM people and their buddies. They they send them Back to the Midwest and these giant sprawling prisons for horses also run by ex-BLM ranchers. It’s a nice little tidy arrangement of tax dollar money. And then they provide horses and give them bounties to boot and pay them money to take horses that end up going to slaughter. It’s a really expensive boondoggle that could not possibly be worse for horses.

Jerry Reynoldson
Yeah, when you look at it, they give these people five year contracts on a lot of these large holding places to pick horses. And they promise them, if it’s for 500 horses, if a few die, the BLM has to replace them so they can keep paying them a level fee for 500 horses. And of course, there is a mortality rate among horses, like there is everything else. So they just send a truck full of some more horses, replaces the ones that have passed away, and the money keeps flowing. And George, you hit on what the real issue is here, you know, [inaudible] overused, I guess, is follow the money. Well, if you follow the money in the wild horse business, you’ll see why we continue to do things the way that we do. A lot of ranchers would much rather take 1000 acres of ground and get paid $1 and then negotiate these contracts, by the way, over every five years. And as I said they’re guaranteed. But for them, instead of having cattle out there which require a lot of manpower, maintenance, cost to feed and everything. They just get these horses for anywhere from a buck and a half to two bucks a peace and turn them out there. And as long as they keep water out there and the fence up, they’re good to go. And again, it’s about money. It’s just about following the money.

George Knapp
You mentioned that there were 52 million acres set aside for wild mustangs by the law. Is there ever a case where, you know, we now have about half of those acres that where horses have been completely zeroed out? There are no horses there anymore, just cows. Has there ever been a case where you round up horses somewhere where the BLM says they’re over populated and take them to some of those millions of acres that have no horses and release them when those acres are set aside specifically for horses?

Jerry Reynoldson
George I don’t know this for a fact, in all the years I’ve been involved in this, I don’t know of them ever returning any horses to any public lands that I’m aware of. And I really don’t think it’s ever happened. Once they gather them, they’re gone. Or once they remove these acres from the HMA status as they had, like I said over half of it is gone now, I don’t think they ever go back. Nor, as I said earlier, do they ever even look at other public lands. You know, we’ve got a huge public land complex in the western United States. When when when you look at everything that’s out here, they never never pursue that angle. Let’s go look. Maybe it’s been suggested. It’s been suggested in some of the NAS, National Academy of Science reports. It’s been in General Accounting Office reports, but it’s never been done, George, I don’t believe that’s ever happened.

George Knapp
As you’ve seen in the last several years, we’ve seen increases in wildfires on public lands, millions and millions of acres just completely torched. A lot of it fueled by overgrown cheap grass, things that horses would eat. Are wild mustangs, a reasonable part of public lands management, specific to wildfires, or do you think that that’s exaggerated?

Jerry Reynoldson
No, there’s no doubt that the horses graze in a way that reduces fire load. I think that’s been clearly established through science over many years now. Some of the people in our public resource organizations don’t want to acknowledge that because it doesn’t play into the narrative of why they have to be removed. But yeah, if you look at the grazing animals that are out there, the horses are probably as beneficial or more beneficial than any other species in terms of keeping down the fire load.

George Knapp
One other question, the Humane Society. You and I have known Humane Society folks and supported them over the years for their fine work in regard to animals and different species. Seems like HSUS, the national organization, has made a Faustian bargain with the the horse roundups, that they were going along with it, I don’t understand that.

Jerry Reynoldson
People are confused by this. And, and speaking to a key staffer on the hill a few weeks ago, it was clearly pointed out to me that this agreement, that’s just referred to as a path forward, has really fogged up the issue has created a lot of confusion about what people’s priorities are. And for those people that are dedicated, those members of Congress that are dedicated to try to help with the management aspects of this program, it really throws a lot of water on the fire because, you know, things that they’re working towards and trying to do, all of a sudden, or the group that would normally be receptive to helping and being involved have now signed off on a real Faustian bargain. You know, again, I said they’ve agreed together 20,000 horses for for 10 years. And the trade off, George, the trade off was that there would be X millions of dollars set aside for fertility control, for population control. And as I said, none of that money has leaked out to the ground. The fertility control that that does get done. Like up in northern Nevada, there’s a group involved, and they they hire their own people, and they’re from the advocacy community, and they go out and they visit the horses, and they’re doing a darn good job of it. And the numbers that they’re able to do would be astounding. And this would could translate to a national scale real easily. Again, there’s no money in that George. There’s no money in that. So we gave up, and here’s what the practical result of this path forward and the involvement by the Humane Society and ASPCA is. So all the pressure that we could bring, through individual advocate advocates working through national organizations is now gone. Because the national organizations are quiet. So how much cover do you think that gives to Secretary Haaland, to the BLM to set them on their hands and do nothing, because now if they get asked, oh, there’s been there’s an agreement, we we struck a deal, this is all been worked out, it’s all been resolved. And in fact, the money that they got for the trade off, for what was supposed to be the big end on their end, for the trade off, was already gonna be appropriated. There were members of Congress that had already put that money in legislation, George. So there is no win on that side of the ledger. But what we’ve lost is the leadership and the ability to coordinate efforts to go up on the hill, and to work this issue. So now you got a bunch of small advocate groups out here, and individuals, you know, screaming bloody murder, because we see where this is headed. We know what the endgame is gonna be, you know, they’ll just continue to decimate these wild horse hearts, and the band structure and so on until we just don’t have healthy reproducing horses, anywhere in the western United States. And that will probably make a quite a few people happy. But it’s not the right course of action. It’s not what we should be doing. But this path forward has really crippled, in my view, our ability.

George Knapp
Seems like we’re at a critical juncture. We need the public to get involved and get mad and involved all over again. Right?

Jerry Reynoldson
You know, I, as I said, George, I know where the public comes down on this. It’s a matter of how do you mobilize that public opinion, the rescue groups, some of them, are just working day and night to try to save horses, but they can’t, you know, run up to the Hill once a week and schedule half a dozen meetings, or do what we should be doing, standing, a bunch of us protesting down in front of the Department of Interior building. That’s what needs to happen to George. Until the advocacy community figures out how to speak with a voice loud enough to get this message out that it’s always the status quo. That’s always just gather the horses. We’re going to make no progress. We’re not going anywhere on the side of the horses.

George Knapp
Thanks Jerry. We’ll stir the pot so we can see what we can get going.

Jerry Reynoldson
Thanks, George. I always appreciate your efforts.

Interview recorded on Oct. 27, 2021

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