Outdoor photographer Eric Wright spends a lot of time tramping the primitive outback north of Las Vegas, photographing wildlife, wild horses and natural scenes. He is out there so often that he knows the landscapes and animals intimately. Therefore when recently visiting the Caliente area it came to his immediate attention that bands of horses that he had observed throughout the year had simply vanished.
When Wright made inquiries with BLM he was told that the horses had been rounded up. When he pressed BLM personnel as to why, he was told that they were starving. Having been repeatedly among these horses, Wright knew better. He continued to ask questions. Before long at least three BLM personnel tried to dismiss his concerns with the "starving horse" explanation.
"You wouldn't believe what these people were telling me," Wright said. "When I explained that I frequently go out there and I know these horses, they just got irritated."
Horses photographed by Wright that BLM personnel claimed were "starving."
Recently in an interview with Examiner On-Line reporter Carrol Abel, BLM Wild Horse and Burro Chief Don Glen stated, "Wild horses are not starving. The press repeatedly gets that wrong. We don't know of any that are starving right now. The range is in good condition." [Citation: Time to "rein in" BLM's wild horse and burro program, Examiner on-line]
In this instance, Mr. Glenn's statement is ostensibly correct, however Glenn's clarification of this matter was lost in his disingenuine slap at the press. Mr. Glenn should fully understand that the reason "the press repeatedly gets that wrong" is because people at BLM, and even Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar, give the public and press wrong information.
Eric Wright's experience provides a profound explanation as to why many wild horse advocates have little confidence in the public agencies that manage free-roaming horse herds.
Nevada wildlife ecologist Craig Downer offered a similar explanation to persons assembled at a wild horse and range workshop in Silver Springs, NV. Downer cautioned, "Don't put a lot of stock in what these agencies tell you. You really need to go out there (on the range) and see things for yourself."
Advocates have done just that, to the annoyance of some officials who want to sell a different story.
Wildlife Ecologist Craig Downer (right) teaches volunteers how to identify and evaluate range grasses.
For decades "starving horses" has been a catch-all rationale to justify rounding up horses. The tragedies with respect to repeatedly issuing such false information can be found in those occasional local catastrophes where horses really are starving. In most of these instances the range may have had sufficient forage, but the failure of springs and other water sources prevented horses and other animals from disbursing across the grazeable acreage. So like the boy who cried "wolf," when the BLM had a real emergency few people tended to believe them.
The group found at least eleven varieties of grass in an area that was supposedly devoid of forage.
In Nevada, the Gibbons administration is even less credible.
On April 11, 2008 The AP reported that Tony Lesperance, Governor Jim Gibbons' new appointee as Nevada's Director of Agriculture, appeared before the State Legislature's Interim Finance Committee and claimed that the range had suffered "a total loss of forage" and that the wild horses were starving. Because of that his department planned to round up the Virginia Range horses "as rapidly as we can." [Citations: State to round up horses, Reno Gazette-Journal, New Nevada Agriculture Director takes aim at wild horses, KBR Wild Horse & Burro News]
Director Lesperance's evidence consisted of a photograph of one sick mare with a foal that had been spotted at the Lockwood, NV landfill.
Nonetheless Lesperance temporarily duped state legislators into believing that there was an actual crisis out on the Virginia Range. These and related false claims started what the Nevada Appeal dubbed as the "Horse Wars."
To give BLM's Don Glenn some credit, Glenn at least came out and set the record straight, although it appears that he tried to shift the blame for repeated misunderstandings to the news media. Lesperance, on the other hand, compounded lie upon lie, culminating in accusations by some Nevadans of attempted extortion, intimidation, abuse of authority and illegally selling state horses "out the back door" to friends, including slaughter buyer Ole Olsen.
"The problem is so pervasive it's often hard to divine whether someone is outright lying or simply doesn't know what he's talking about," said Willis Lamm, a Nevada advocate. "We provide water to horses on the range. We used to fill tanks provided by the Department of Agriculture using an excess public works water tender. But when it suited his purposes, Lesperance tried to claim we were illegally watering horses and that we were trapping and selling them. We distributed photos of the state equipment involved in the project and he shut up. Then an official aerial horse count showed more horses on the range than anyone ever expected to find. So some of these guys will make up anything to suit their purposes."
Advocates are also quick to point out that there are a number of honest people working for these agencies, but the problem is that they are usually not the ones giving out information to the public, the press and lawmakers.
Bonnie Matton, President of the Wild Horse Preservation League added, "Some officials also like to claim that the advocates don't want to see any management of the wild horses. Of course the horses have to be managed, but we want them managed sensibly so that we Nevadans, and tourists visiting Nevada, have viable herds of horses to view and enjoy. People come from all over the world to see wild horses. We need to have real wild horses out on their historic ranges for tourists to see."
The general consensus of a group of wild horse leaders who met recently to discuss some new developments in the Virginia Range was, "We pushed back on the Department (of Agriculture) and the big round-up didn't happen. It's been nearly two years and the 'big starvation' that Lesperance insisted was coming didn't happen. The range looks great and isn't devoid of vegetation as Lesperance insisted was happening. It was all a big lie."
Eric Wright drove from Las Vegas to the Virginia Range to see for himself what was going on. Even after near-record snowfall the horses he found looked healthy.
A band of Virginia Range horses pawing snow to find grass to eat.
Photo by Eric Wright
The same worn and irrelevant argument that horses are starving and that the range is being irreparably degraded are again being advanced by Governor Gibbons' appointees. In the latest instance such claims are in reference to horses in BLM's Calico Mountains Complex. Advocates argue that it is time for horse and range conditions to be seen for what they really are, and that those officials who continuously misrepresent actual conditions be seen for what they are also.
Wright and others interested in improving horse related ecotourism have proposed creating "Mustang National Park" within an easy drive of Las Vegas. The scheme sounds far fetched until one looks at the financial potential relating to managing a natural range for the preservation of horses that is readily accessible to visitors to Las Vegas, one of the nation's greatest tourist centers. When this concept becomes more defined, details will be posted on this site.
You can view a couple of examples of the condition of the Caliente animals and the range that Eric Wright recently photographed. Please visit his gallery page entitled,