Courtney, who has been exposing what she says is BLM cruelty for the past five years, told Digital Journal that animals at the federal government's Palomino Valley Adoption Center (PVC) in Reno, are being exposed to triple digit temperatures on a regular basis this summer, yet have no access to shelter in which to escape the heat.
"Horses are in there for a long time, until adopted," said Courtney, "it's obvious they need shade." With, "no enrichment, not even salt licks or mineral blocks, the paddock areas resemble feedlots," she said.
Debbie Collins from the Marketing and National Information Center for the BLM's National Wild Horse & Burro Program, told Digital Journal that during the Aug. 6th public tour, "we pointed out the water troughs that had electrolytes and the salt/mineral blocks available in pens ... so, not sure if she didn't understand what they were, but they were very obvious."
Increase in temps are areas of concern
After speaking with several people from the Regional Western Climate Center, Courtney obtained printed charts that show increased heat patterns for region over the last two years.
"This year we have already had 12 days over 100 degrees F," she said, "with many other days in the upper nineties. It was the same last year," the advocate explained, "eleven days at over 100 degrees F."
Yet despite the increasing heat, Courtney said, "PVC has no shade at all." It is an irony the advocate says she puzzles over given that stored hay is covered, and the facility only adopts out horses to people who can prove they have shelter for them.
The Center is the largest BLM preparation and adoption facility in the country with a holding capacity of 1,850 animals. It serves as the primary preparation center for wild horses and burros rounded up from Nevada and other state public lands.
In June, PVC installed seven sprinklers at the facilities, but according to Courtney, "the sprinklers are absolutely insufficient to provide any relief, as there are not enough nor are they set up appropriately to reach all horses."
Furthermore the advocate alleges, "the BLM claims that former free-roaming wild horses do not need shade, but in the wild" she explained, "they seek cover and shade in thickets of riparian habitats and dense brush, wooded areas or canyonlands."
Being confined in open pens, on soft ground, with no way to naturally grind down their hooves, the corralled horses and burros no longer have the option to seek out shade, Courtney pointed out.
"Since the horses' health can be compromised in high temperatures," she explained, "even wild horses' internal body temperatures rise." Courtney believes exposure to extreme heat led to the deaths of two foals at the facility, one in June and one in July.
Concerned over the deaths, on July 16, she wrote to Neil Kornze, the BLM's Principal Deputy Director and informed him of the second foal's death. "A week ago," Courtney wrote, "another foal died at PVC, to add to the long list of "undiagnosed" horse deaths being loaded onto the rendering truck."
Digital Journal asked Collins how many horses were currently at PVC, what the adoption rate was for animals, what happened to horses that are not adopted, and also queried the number of annual deaths of horses/burros at PVC.
Collins told us:
The 7/17/13 facility report we have posted to the website shows a capacity of 1,850 and 1,581 inventory. Those numbers should still be in the ballpark. New report will be posted later this month. The average mortality rate is +/-2%. This varies greatly based on the condition of the horses that are received. Per research by Dr. Stull and Holcomb [UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine], the domestic horse world has a 6% mortality rate.
Federal guidelines needed says advocate
Courtney is pushing for federal guidelines to be established to improve standards for the welfare of horses being held across all BLM facilities. "There are none," she told me. The advocate also expressed frustration over BLM board member Jim Stephenson's statement at the BLM's Wild Horse & Burro Advisory Board meeting held in Salt Lake City last October.
Stephenson's answer to the problem she said, was to send horses and burros to slaughter.
"I am not convinced that Jim Stephenson possesses the tenet to really administer range improvement benefitting wild horses," she said. With his, "extensive credentials in Wildlife Management, cattle grazing, big game and cattle/sheep ranches," she added, "his cross view at last year's meeting deeply troubled me."
DJ asked Collins how well the agency vets people looking to adopt horses and whether post checks are followed through with after adoption. One of the main concerns expressed by advocates is that horses are being purchased and hauled to Mexico for slaughter.
Collins replied that when adoptees are approved, and if they adopt a horse, BLM has compliance officers that check on the animals afterward. "Some offices also engage APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) vets and volunteers to help with compliance efforts," she said.
Collins explained that all wild horses or burros belong to the federal government until the BLM issues a certificate of title, usually about "one year following the initial adoption date. A wild horse or burro that is purchased receives immediate title," she added. The agency employee also provided a link to their new interim sales policy
BLM-held workshop for the public
On August 6, following a tour of PVC, the BLM held a workshop at the Reno facility. A BLM press release said the public meeting was held to brainstorm several items geared at "increasing comfort for the animals at the PVC facility."
In attendance at the meeting was Dr. Carolyn Stull, Ph.D., and Dr. Kathryn Holcomb, Ph.D., of UC Davis. Both had been scheduled to visit PVC to assess environmental conditions there.
Prior to the meeting, Joan Guilfoyle, the Wild Horse and Burro Division Chief, acknowledged:
Although PVC doesn't typically have triple-digit temperatures for prolonged periods of time, as is the case in other areas where shade is provided for the animals, we know this summer in Reno has been especially hot. The well-being of the wild horses and burros under BLM's care is important to us, both on and off the range, and we're interested in constructive input and dialogue with the public.
Monika Courtney flew in from Colorado for the meeting armed with packages of information. Courtney had compiled vet letters on heat stress, warning signs and treatment for the condition, weather patterns and climate charts. The advocate also supplied photographs of horses seeking shelter in the wild plus canopy information (similar to that used at the Ridgecrest facility in California).
"The BLM is concerned that run-in sheds could injure the horses," Courtney told DJ, "so I brought in information on big solid structures such as canopies or the structures already in place at PVC facility over the hay."
The workshop was not what the advocate had hoped for. She explained:
Unfortunately the workshop was not structured not to be able to give much input for the public, so I handed my package to Carolyn Stull and Kathryn Holcomb, both recruited by BLM and also to Joan Guilfoyle, head of the program, after the workshop ended. The packages were not appreciated and were taken without a word.
The meeting, said the advocate, was solely offered to appease the public after the issues at PVC had created national awareness. Courtney was astounded, she said, by Dr. Stull's presentation
"This is the very person who wrote the code of standards for horses in California," she explained, yet the doctor's input she added, was "so contrary to her other work, one wondered if she was the same person."
Collins countered, "Dr. Stull and Dr. Holcomb are PhD researchers from UC Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine. Dr. Stull is highly accredited in this type of research." Stull's assessment of PVC
, concluded that "healthy, mature horses with adequate feed and water and a BCS greater than 3 do not require shade at this facility."
For sick horses however, Stull suggested overhead structures to provide shade, "to 50% of the pen, preferably including the feeding area. This," she explained, "will assist horses with compromised health conditions to minimize energy expenditure for thermoregulation in hot weather as well as in cold or wet weather."
Courtney, after touring PVC firsthand said that she was not happy with what she observed. "I know animal neglect and suffering when it is real," the advocate said, "and what is going on at PVC," she added, "is exactly that."
Some query the imbalance of acreage for horses versus cattle
"The BLM states its mission is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of America's public lands," Courtney explained, "yet according to the BLM information sheet handed out at the Advisory Board meeting, "of the 245 million acres managed by BLM, livestock grazing is authorized on 157 million acres and wild horses and burros are managed on only 26 million acres."
Collins countered that the simple answer to this, is, "the Act did not authorize use of ALL BLM lands by wild horses and burros. Even if the Act did allow for that to occur," she said, "millions of BLM's acres are not suitable for sustaining wild horses and burros."
Broken down further, Collins also explained that, "no specific amount of acreage was 'set aside' for the exclusive use of wild horses and burros under the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act.
According to printed policy, she pointed out:
The Act directed the BLM to determine the areas where horses and burros were found roaming and to manage them "in a manner that is designed to achieve and maintain a thriving natural ecological balance on the public lands."
The law also stipulated in Section 1339 that, "Nothing in this Act shall be construed to authorize the [Interior] Secretary to relocate wild free-roaming horses or burros to areas of the public lands where they do not presently exist."
Of the 22.2 million acres no longer managed for wild horse and burro use:
6.7 million acres were never under BLM management.
Of the 15.5 million other acres of land under BLM management:
48.6 percent (7,522,100 acres) were intermingled ("checkerboard") land ownerships or areas where water was not owned or controlled by the BLM, which made management infeasible;
13.5 percent (2,091,709 acres) were lands transferred out of the BLM's ownership to other agencies, both Federal and state through legislation or exchange;
10.6 percent (1,645,758 acres) were lands where there were substantial conflicts with other resource values (such as the need to protect habitat for desert tortoise);
9.7 percent (1,512,179 acres) were lands removed from wild horse and burro use through court decisions; urban expansion; highway fencing (causing habitat fragmentation); and land withdrawals;
9.6 percent (1,485,068 acres) were lands where no BLM animals were present at the time of the passage of the 1971 Act or places where all animals were claimed as private property. These lands in future land-use plans will be subtracted from the BLM totals as they should never have been designated as lands where herds were found roaming; and
8.0 percent (1,240,894 acres) were lands where a critical habitat component (such as winter range) was missing, making the land unsuitable for wild horse and burro use, or areas that had too few animals to allow for effective management.
"The percentages above in this section," said Collins, "were current as of July 25, 2011."
Addressing round-up woes
"I can't stand by and let this cruelty continue," Courtney told DJ. "When you see helicopter skids knocking over a panicked equine running below it, exposure is the best tool," she added. "These horses are stockpiled like commodities. There are currently 50,000 horses in miserable holding facilities. America must do better than this for our majestic living legends."
Collins responded that nationwide, the average number of fatalities caused during a roundup is one percent.
Courtney also argued that the federal agency is wont to cite budgeting as a reason for not moving forward on projects, but added, "with budget projections for 2013 of $78 million, the wild horse and burro program allocated 47% to short-term and long-term holding."
"One has to wonder where all the funds go in light of such minimalist irresponsible care and depriving horses of their basic needs' standards," she said, "especially as another whopping 8.8 % is allocated to gather and remove more horses which are then stockpiled into the same miserable living conditions of government holding."
DJ queried Courtney's funding issue and asked if Collins could address how the 47% for holding is allocated?
Collins replied that the amount, "covers all of the feed/vaccine/vet contracts and other operational overhead costs. Basically, whatever it takes to care for our animals comes first."
Courtney's campaign for shelter recently captured the attention of CNN's Jane Velez and Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the US Humane Society (HSUS). Both have approached the issue.
HSUS fired off its own letter of concern to Neil Kornze on July 15th. They too said that while the sprinkler system was, "a critical step," it was, "no substitute for the relief that shade provides to animals in desert terrains during the hottest months of the year."
HSUS also argued that while wild horses and burros are, "accustomed to open environments ... PVC is not an open environment." These animals, HSUS said, cannot seek shade if need be. "The point of a short-term holding facility," the group added, "is to prepare these animals for adoption so they should be thriving – not just surviving – in these facilities."
As for the the BLM's determination that no illness or ill effects had occurred as a result of the animals not having shade, the animal welfare organization took issue with the statement. Without a necropsy, HSUS pointed out, "there's no way for BLM to make that claim."
We asked Collins for a response to the HSUS missive, the agency responded that along with others, the animal organization's recommendation was being evaluated like all other recommendations. "As those who attended the workshop knows, and as is posted to our webpage," Collins said, "the BLM is currently evaluating potential options and will announce a decision on Aug 26."
In the interim, Courtney is now asking the public to gather recommendations from vets on heat stress that can be submitted along with photographs to their state senators. "People need to contact their state rep's now, as a higher instance is necessary to effect change," she said.
"We must find an applicable solution," Courtney urged, "these demonized 'living legends' have nothing but broken spirits. It is beyond pathetic."
The advocate also hopes that Americans will step up and adopt one of the country's most notable icons. "Anything we can do to help some of these mustangs get out of these miserable living conditions is beneficial," she said. "Wild horses enhance the ecosystem and reduce risks to wildfires, yet they have been unfairly scapegoated for decades."
Courtney added that concerned people should "implore the BLM to invest in more sensible management in the wild." Currently, she stated, "the management is biased, and monopolized to serve special interests and the cattle industry." She believes the horses fare much better when left alone and without BLM intervention:
The entrenched abuse of our tax funds is demonizing the horses and more are rounded up, while close to nothing is being spent on better range solutions.
Unhappy with BLM's intervention, Courtney concluded that the agency's actions were, "an insult to American taxpayers and a mockery of the 1971 Wild Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act."