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Analysis: Rangeland damage from wild horses, burros far exceeded by cattle grazing

The Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area in Colorado.
David Boyd
The Piceance-East Douglas Herd Management Area in Colorado.

Compared to cattle, wild horses and burros cause much less damage to public rangeland, according to a new analysis.

The advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility - or PEER - has analyzed nearly three decades of Bureau of Land Management data detailing the health of millions of acres of rangeland. Livestock were blamed for roughly two-thirds of the nearly 57 million acres that failed to meet environmental standards.

But less than a million failing acres were attributed to wild horses and burros alone, while another 6.5 million failed due to a combination of cattle and horses, according to PEER and the BLM data. The vast majority – over 80%– of acres impacted exclusively or in part by wild horses was in Nevada.

PEER said that the BLM aggressively manages wild horse and burro populations, but does not do so with cattle, which PEER’s Chandra Rosenthal calls “cow blindness.”

“It's just clear from the data that wild horses are being unfairly blamed for the land degradation that's overwhelmingly caused by commercial livestock grazing,” she said.

The group and others estimate that some 1.5 million cattle graze on BLM land, about 20 times the agency estimate of 73,520 wild horses and burros. Asked to respond to PEER’s findings, the BLM said in a written statement that it is “taking meaningful steps to make land health assessments more efficient and effective.”

“The recently finalized Public Lands Rule will apply the fundamentals of land health to not just grazing allotments, but to all lands the BLM manages at a watershed scale,” the statement continued. “These assessments will be vital tools for improving overall land health, restoring degraded lands, and more efficiently processing permits.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

As Boise State Public Radio's Mountain West News Bureau reporter, I try to leverage my past experience as a wildland firefighter to provide listeners with informed coverage of a number of key issues in wildland fire. I’m especially interested in efforts to improve the famously challenging and dangerous working conditions on the fireline.

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