Getting the word out: Rangeland ecosystems at tipping point

BLM horses

“Free-roaming horses and burros will continue to increase in population by 18-20 percent annually without improved management actions.”–NHBRMC

Horse and burro populations are out of control on western rangelands, and the National Horse and Burro Rangeland Management Coalition (NHBRMC) is taking to the airwaves to educate the public about the serious problem this poses for wildlife and rangeland health. Finally, national organizations are taking a stand on this dire situation.

The Coalition, which we wrote about in an earlier post, is airing its TV commercials in Colorado. They can also be viewed at www.wildhorserange.org. See the one focusing on wildlife here.

You Can Help

Native wildlife and rangeland health are being significantly harmed by horse and burro overpopulations, in large part because the wild horse lobby — through protests and lawsuits — makes it impossible for the BLM and US Forest Service to manage herds effectively.

And because the horse lobby is loud, persistent and poorly informed, our elected officials need to hear from constituents who support wildlife and land sustainability (especially Michelle Lujan Grisham, who is currently co-sponsoring a short-sighted, poorly thought out bill, HR 1492, that would only add to the feral horse problem in New Mexico and other states).

You can send a message to NM’s congressional delegation urging immediate action to protect rangeland ecosystems by going to this link. (Just type in your email address and zip code to get started).

Horses have caused more damage than drought

Horse Indian Flats“More than mining or drought… livestock grazing has caused the most devastation to the site.” That’s what Adam Lujan, a range management specialist with the BLM, was quoted as saying about the Buffalo Tract in an article in Saturday’s Santa Fe New Mexican. And by livestock, Lujan means free-roaming horses. You can read the entire article, which focuses on BLM’s upcoming disposition of the Buffalo Tract and related horse issues, here.

The article points out that the two pueblos interested in obtaining all or a portion of the severely grass-depleted tract have very different ideas about how it should be managed. While Santa Ana Pueblo says it would let the land rest and recover so it can better support wildlife, San Felipe Pueblo says they would put more horses on the land by turning it into a horse sanctuary.

Feral horses: scourge of the West, not symbol

Don’t miss this recent article in Slate magazine by conservation biologist Daniel Rubinoff and ecologist Christopher Lepczyk, who aptly state that feral horses are a scourge of the West, not a symbol, and that romanticizing horses has seriously harmed the environment. They describe how horses destroy the fragile biotic soil crusts that hold grasslands together, compete with native wildlife for forage and water, and exacerbate the impacts of climate change and habitat fragmentation.

“The current stalemate portends an end result that will be tragic. With little controlling their populations, wild horses will increase in number and permanently degrade sensitive riparian areas, like the Salt River, across the West. These areas are unlikely to recover unless we round up invasive horses soon, because topsoil in arid ecosystems can take thousands of years to regenerate.”

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A tip of the hat to Bob A. for sending the link.

Santa Ana and SADLH Land Grant Join Forces

Mule Deer Santa Ana 11-2015

A mule deer catches the morning sun. Photo courtesy of Pueblo of Santa Ana.

A new partnership of sorts is afoot. As we’ve mentioned before, the Pueblo of Santa Ana and the San Antonio de las Huertas Land Grant are both interested in obtaining all or some of the 3142-acre BLM Buffalo Tract that sits to the north of Placitas. The tract will be up for disposal by BLM in the near future, according to the draft BLM Rio Puerco Resource Management Plan released last year.

Santa Ana wants to see the majority of the land preserved as a wildlife corridor, while the SADLH Land Grant has said it wants to obtain the easternmost 1500 acres under the Recreational and Public Purposes Act to manage as a recreational area, with walking trails and an historic living museum.

Now, the two entities have signed a memorandum of understanding to support each other’s aims. This means Santa Ana will no longer attempt to obtain the entire tract. Perhaps the unified front will make it a little easier for the Feds to make a decision about the land that’s in each party’s interest.

Representatives from Santa Ana and the SADLH Land Grant will discuss their cooperative approach on Thursday, December 17, 10:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. in the Banquet Room at Prairie Star Restaurant (288 Prairie Star Rd., Santa Ana Pueblo). The public is welcome and encouraged to attend.

 

NM Supreme Court Declines to Take Up WHOA vs NMLB

scales_of_justiceLast week, the New Mexico Supreme Court declined to hear the Wild Horse Observers Association (WHOA) vs. New Mexico Livestock Board (NMLB) case concerning free-roaming horses in Placitas. The state Supreme Court receives dozens of petitions a year and can only take on so many cases, so they choose the most interesting or pressing ones. Placitas horse issues didn’t make the cut.

A District Court judge had dismissed the case back in July 2014 because she didn’t think WHOA’s primary argument — that Placitas free-roaming horses aren’t livestock and shouldn’t be treated as such by NMLB — held water. WHOA appealed the decision. In August, the Court of Appeals weighed in, disagreed with the District Court’s dismissal of the case on the particular grounds that it cited, and sent the case back to District Court.

But first, the NMLB petitioned the Supreme Court in September to review the Court of Appeals ruling. So did the group of Placitas residents that has joined NMLB as defendants in the case.*

Since the Supreme Court isn’t interested in the case, it now goes back to District Court for further proceedings. The judge will look further at the several arguments presented by both sides and ultimately issue a new ruling. This will all take awhile. We’ll keep you posted.

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*Disclosure: The editors of this blog, together with other Placitas residents, joined the lawsuit as “defendants by intervention” in support of NMLB and private property rights.

What a little cooperation can do

Dog cat shaking handsWonders never cease. Last Monday, Placitas Wild, a local group that advocates for keeping free-roaming horses on the land, backed up a horse trailer to a temporary corral on Susan Blumenthal’s Placitas property and loaded up four horses it had purchased from her two weeks earlier. The transaction was a refreshing display of how civil, thinking grown-ups can solve thorny free-roaming horse issues without resorting to name-calling, vandalism and fisticuffs.

The horses had been frequent visitors to Blumenthal’s property, where they trampled riparian areas, overgrazed sparse native grasses, and damaged an archeological conservancy area. Tired of seeing her habitat restoration efforts stomped into oblivion, Blumenthal set up a portable pen. When the horses wandered in for a snack, she shut the gate. With that, she became the proud owner of four previously free-roaming horses, thanks to the surprising ruling by the NM Court of Appeals in August.

Stallions dining

Photo courtesy of Zane Dohner.

Helping hands

Although Blumenthal didn’t want the horses free to continue damaging the Las Huertas Creek basin, she did want to find a good home for them. The NM Livestock Board, which had verified the horses’ unowned status and documented that they now belonged to Blumenthal, offered to help by notifying Placitas Wild of the situation. Placitas Wild, which recently established a horse sanctuary on San Felipe Pueblo, agreed to buy the horses from Blumenthal for $1 each.

Horses in Blumenthal corral

Horses in the Blumenthal corral. Photo courtesy of Zane Dohner.

While arrangements with Placitas Wild were being finalized, Blumenthal continued to care for the horses. She was helped by several Placitas residents (including this blog’s editors) who have been working to protect public and private lands in Placitas from environmental damage caused by free-roaming horses. We ensured the horses were well-fed and the corral kept clean for some weeks. (We so-called “horse haters” also made donations to Placitas Wild to help cover the upcoming expense of gelding the stallions). In spite of differing views about whether free-roaming horses belong on the land, everyone was interested in the welfare of the horses and worked together to ensure a good outcome. The NMLB did what they could to assist while taking pains to comply with the confusing dictates of the recent court ruling.

Imagine! No fist fights. No vandalism of property. No laying down in front of trucks, no chasing of vehicles, and nary a rock thrown. Between Blumenthal, the group of local residents, attorney Dave Reynolds, the Placitas Wild folks, NMLB, and the Sandoval County Sheriff’s Office (which patiently explained to WHOA president Patience O’Dowd that yes, Blumenthal’s actions were entirely legal), everyone worked together to ensure the horse’s welfare and a civil transaction.

Oh, the irony

WHOA thought its appellate court victory would mean carte blanche for free-roaming horses on private land, but the opposite is true. By granting WHOA’s wish to have “unowned and undomesticated” horses no longer considered livestock, the court gave property owners more say over the disposal of horses they capture. In this case, that served to effectively sideline WHOA and Placitas Animal Rescue and keep their histrionics out of the picture. Instead, reasonable adults were able to quickly reach an agreement that worked for all parties — two-legged and four-legged.

The New Horse Ruling and the Consequences of Not Being Livestock

scales_of_justiceAs mentioned in our first post yesterday, in August the New Mexico Court of Appeals overturned a decision of the New Mexico Second District Court.

By way of background, in February 2014, Wild Horse Observer’s Association (WHOA) filed a lawsuit claiming Placitas free-roaming horses are “wild” and it is unlawful for the New Mexico Livestock Board (NMLB) to treat them as livestock.* The District Court didn’t buy WHOA’s arguments and ruled in July 2014 that all horses are livestock and the Placitas horses are covered by NM livestock statutes.

WHOA appealed the decision. The Court of Appeals, which trumps the lower court, said in its August 2015 ruling that not all horses qualify as livestock, and that horses that are “unowned and undomesticated” are not livestock.

Remember that phrase. It’s a brand new category of horse, with no legal precedent in New Mexico or any other state. The new ruling appears to conflict with several points of established law, so it will be interesting to see how it all shakes out.

WHOA claims the ruling is a victory for them. We’re not so sure.

This is how we see things as a result of the ruling:

  • Unowned, undomesticated horses (this includes most Placitas free-roaming horses) are no longer considered “livestock”. They are not covered by livestock statutes and have lost certain protections. The Livestock Board is no longer responsible for them if they are captured, doesn’t have to post public notices about them, and isn’t required to find a home or sell them at public auction. Whether this is good or bad for the horses remains to be seen.
  • It appears that unowned, undomesticated horses in New Mexico are now considered wild animals. (Note that they are not “wild horses” as defined in the federal Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, which only concerns wild horse herds on federal lands.) And as with other wild, non-game animals, a landowner has the legal authority to capture and control them, as long as any relevant state statutes are followed (see, for example, NM Attorney General’s Opinion 94-06 regarding the wild horses of White Sands Missile Range).
  • So, the ruling does not change the fact that property owners can legally corral a trespassing horse—owned or unowned, wild or tame–on their own property. This action has always been legal and remains legal. The only difference due to the new ruling is that now NMLB can’t help you afterwards if the captured horse turns out to be “unowned and undomesticated”. For the time being, NMLB can only help you with owned horses, which remain “livestock”.

And by the way…

  • A state statute (the so-called “wild horse” statute, 77-18-5 NMSA) requires DNA testing of any unclaimed horse captured on certain public lands in New Mexico. If the test shows the horse is of Spanish Colonial descent, certain procedures have to be followed. However, it doesn’t appear there are any lands in Placitas that meet the statute’s narrow definition of public lands. Arguably, the POS might meet the definition, but technically the POS is under the ultimate control of BLM, a federal agency, which isn’t subject to the state statute. The POS is fenced and off limits to free-roaming horses, anyway, so it’s a moot point. The wild horse statute, with its DNA testing and other requirements, does not apply to horses captured on private land, and the Court of Appeals ruling does not change this.
  • The ruling does not mean free-roaming horses are now allowed on the Placitas Open Space. The Placitas Open Space (POS) is a fenced, protected recreational area managed by the City of Albuquerque under the federal Recreational and Public Purposes Act. Free-roaming horses of any sort are not permitted on the POS and the ruling doesn’t change that.
  • The ruling does not mean free-roaming horses must be allowed on the BLM Buffalo Tract, either. BLM land is federal land and BLM is not subject to state laws regarding horses.

The intent of WHOA’s lawsuit was to stop NMLB from treating Placitas free-roaming horses as estray livestock. WHOA was successful in that regard. That means a property owner can no longer count on NMLB’s help in finding a home for or auctioning an unowned, undomesticated horse that they have penned and want removed from their land.

Instead, as a result of the court ruling, the property owner can assume ownership of the horse, along with the legal right to keep or sell it. However, anyone who pens a horse on their property must still immediately contact NMLB so the horse’s legal status can be appropriately documented.

Thanks to WHOA’s misguided legal efforts, it looks like it’s the Wild West again.

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*Full disclosure: The editors of this blog, together with other Placitas residents, were parties to the lawsuit, joining as “defendants by intervention” in support of NMLB.

Disclaimer: We try to exercise due diligence in ensuring information on this blog is accurate. As part of that process, this post was reviewed by an attorney experienced in livestock law. We’re not lawyers and the information provided on this blog should not be construed as legal advice. If you have questions concerning livestock or free-roaming horses, contact the NM Livestock Board and/or consult a qualified attorney.

This posted updated 11/19/15.