An American writes to the BLM against helicopter roundups in Wyoming


© Protect Mustangs

© Protect Mustangs

July 16, 2014

Bureau of Land Management
Wyoming — State, District, and Affected Field Offices
Wyoming — Annual Hearing — Use of Helicopters, Motorized Vehicles

Per the standard practice for BLM state offices that administer the Wild Horse and Burro Program to hold an annual hearing on the use of motorized vehicles and aircraft — chiefly helicopters — for counting, capturing, and carting off wild horses and burros, such a meeting has been scheduled for this date in Rock Springs, Wyoming. I regret that I cannot attend the hearing. However, I am submitting information, recommendations, and alternatives as an interested party in behalf of the wild horses of Wyoming. I request that my comments be read aloud at the hearing.
HELICOPTERS — Dangerous to Humans
Scheduled Airliners — Safe; Helicopters — Crash-Prone

The American public considers travel-by-air to be safe, even routine. Crashes are rare, and fatalities, few. Thus, it is easy to assume that all flight is safe, which is not the case.

Helicopters are notorious for crashing. Please compare and contrast Wyoming’s aviation crash-records of scheduled air carriers versus helicopters during the 42-plus years since the passage of the Wild and Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 — the period from January 1, 1972 to May 31, 2014 — per the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB):

Scheduled Air Carriers (“Part 121”)

14 — Accidents and incidents (minor events excluded)
0 — Accidents that resulted in fatalities


113 — Accidents and incidents (minor events excluded)
5 — Accidents that resulted in fatalities
6 — Number of persons that died in those accidents

At the link below, you can replicate the searches to verify these data.

Similarity to Aerial Hunting

In the United States, more than a hundred helicopters and planes have crashed while conducting aerial hunting, whose procedures closely resemble those involved in rounding up wild horses. Just as with BLM gathers, aerial-hunting pilots fly only a few feet off the ground and perform risky maneuvers from which they may not be able to recover.

Moreover, the long hours involved, and the frustrations of working with frightened, unpredictable animals, can lead to pilot error. Video documentation is plentiful of helicopter pilots ramming horses and burros with their landing skids, seemingly intentionally.

Helicopter Accident and Incident Record during Wild Horse Roundups

Helicopters have crashed while rounding up wild horses. BLM admits to approximately 10 helicopter accidents and “hard landings” during wild-horse gathers over the past 30 years or so. That’s about one crash every three years. What airline would stay in business with such a safety record?

Using helicopters for gathering wild horses and burros is inherently risky, with no greater purposes than administrative convenience and “efficiency.” Such purposes do not justify the risks. There is no imminent threat to life or property that would require the use of helicopters to roundup some horses. BLM is wrong to continue this dangerous activity when a safe alternative is available — bait trapping.

Helicopter Census Method Puts BLM Personnel at Risk

BLM’s environmental assessments often allude to the use of “multiple experienced observers” (whom I suppose to be BLM staffers) to count and photograph wild horses — or what they think are wild horses — while being flown in grid patterns over the range.

Given the crash-proneness of helicopters, BLM could face a tragedy — with loss of several key personnel, friends, and colleagues in an accident. Counting wild horses does not justify this risky method. Instead, consider bait-and-or-water trapping every member of each herd — without removals. Fit them with telemetry collars, and track them.

Helicopters — Some Recent and Relevant Accidents

1. On February 18, 2013, a helicopter belonging to El Aero Services, Inc. took off from its home-base in Elko, Nevada to perform certain operations on behalf of BLM. The helicopter subsequently crashed near Eureka, Nevada. The pilot was killed. Here is the link to the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) report:

Please note that, on one of the helicopter-runs preceding the crash, BLM’s Helicopter Manager was aboard. Moreover, the NTSB report seems to suggest that the accident may have been caused, at least in part, by pilot-fatigue. Best practices (US Army flight regulations) would have called for reduced “time-on-task” — no more than 37 hours per week, with additional reductions by factors of 1.3 to 1.6 due to low-altitude flight, which is known to be more tiring than higher-altitude flight. The pilot that died flew in excess of those recommendations and, tellingly, the accident happened on the last run of the last day of that long work-week.

2. While the crash referenced above occurred during a seed-dispersal project, the NTSB report discloses that the pilot had experienced a previous accident, on October 18, 2007, … while herding horses in North Dakota. On that day, the pilot was conducting a helicopter-roundup on behalf of the National Park Service. Please see the photographs on pages 4 – 7 of the PowerPoint Presentation, found at the link below.

Per the NTSB report, the probable cause of the 2007 accident was: ‘”The pilot failed to maintain clearance from the fence while maneuvering at low altitude.”‘ The pilot and passenger both suffered minor injuries. The report does not say, but that passenger may well have been a Federal employee. Who was the contractor? Again, it was El Aero Services, Inc. Here is the link to that Probable Cause Report:

I note that, despite the 2013 tragedy and the 2007 accident, El Aero was recently awarded a $6,000,000 contract for helicopter services relating to the Wild Horse and Burro Program.

3. On April 14, 2014, a helicopter being used by Wildlife Services to locate a radio-tagged Bighorn sheep crashed near Bullfrog, Utah. The pilot and crewmember were seriously injured. Here is the link to the preliminary accident report.

Recommendation: Avoid helicopters for counting and gathering wild horses. As they say, the life you save may be your own.

4. On June 29, 2014, a helicopter being used to fly photographers around the Paul, ID area crashed. The pilot and two passengers were injured, and the helicopter was crushed. BLM staffers saw the downed aircraft and responded to the scene to render assistance (leading some onlookers to infer — mistakenly — that it was a BLM aircraft). I am including this event for your consideration because BLM personnel photograph wild-horse bands while taking inventory and when determining population-distribution.

Why Helicopters Crash

Below is the link to the slide presentation Human Factors in Helicopter Accidents that accompanied the keynote address given by NTSB Board Member Robert Sumwalt at the Fifth International Helicopter Safety Symposium.

Mr. Sumwalt’s talk focused on a crash that occurred in New Mexico during a search-and-rescue flight. Note the similarities between the factors that led to the crash in question and the conditions, standard operating procedures, and observed pilot behavior in BLM helicopter roundups. The factors deemed to have played a significant role in the New Mexico accident included:

Flight conditions

Remote, mountainous terrain
Windy conditions
Twilight, less than 2 hours of daylight


Culture that prioritized mission execution at all costs
Weak requirements for risk assessment during the mission
Actions and attitudes detrimental to safety
Lack of a “safety-focused culture”


Self-induced pressure to conduct the flight
Situational stress that “… distracted him from identifying and evaluating alternative courses of action”
Inadequate pilot staffing
Personal temperament — “very aggressive, high-speed type”
Long work hours and sleep disruptions due to work-related phone calls at night

BLM Helicopter Roundups Involve Additional Risks

The factors listed above could have been said of most BLM helicopter roundups. However, there are additional risks inherent in a BLM wild-horse gather:

BLM-FS Roundup — Flight Conditions

Low and slow
Desert-type environments — brownout potential
Winter roundups — whiteout potential
Dealing with unpredictable animals
High potential for loss of situational awareness

BLM-FS Roundup — Organizational

Need to stick to the scheduled time-frame for completing the roundup
Pressure to appear to reduce exaggerated estimated herd levels to low-AML
Culture of secrecy and deception regarding helicopter roundup flights
COTR/PI failure to stop the pilot’s pitiless harassment of exhausted horses

BLM-FS Roundup — Pilot

Financial incentive to round up as many horses as fast as possible
Motivation to earn the per-horse fee in addition to the flat-fee for service
Preoccupation, seeming fixation, to capture every last horse
Evident haste to bring the bands in, forcing them to gallop over rough ground
Divided attention — multi-tasking — while monitoring aircraft systems
Showing off, trying to impress onlookers that he has the “right stuff”
Aggressive, relentless prodding and ramming of horses with the landing skids to make them move faster, but often knocking them down instead
Impatience, anger, frustration, recklessness, and vindictiveness reflected in the roundup pilot’s patterns of behavior — egregious emotions that can lead to unwise decisions and result in an accident

How the Bad Behavior Looks

Below is the link to a report that aired on HLN about the recent Jackson Mountains roundup in Nevada. Most of the still-photos are of those operations. There is also video footage from previous roundups, documenting the pilot sadistically ramming animals with the half-ton helicopter’s landing skids, even flipping one little burro upside down. (Once it loads, there’s a 15-second ad, and then the news-clip starts.)
(Run-time: 2 minutes, 54 seconds.)

Pilot Error — The Cause of Most Helicopter Crashes

According to studies, human error remains the causal factor in 65 to 90 percent of helicopter mishaps. BLM has been gambling that the risky behavior involved in its wild-horse roundups can continue without further disasters. But the odds are against it. Such roundups are tragedies waiting to happen. BLM is negligent in continuing to use helicopters when a safe, superior gather-method is available.

Helicopter Pilots — Would Seem More Qualified, But …

Ironically, helicopter pilots are typically more mature, more experienced, and have higher ratings than the average pilot. They tend to maintain their currency in time and type. Yet despite their seeming advantages, they have more accidents — 46-percent more. If a crash occurred during a helicopter-roundup, the pilot, BLM staff, observers, and the wild horses could be hurt or killed.

Commercial Considerations — Economic Viability Factors

An insightful helicopter-crash study, Root Causes of Helicopter Pilot Error Accidents, which had been posted on the Federal Aviation Administration’s Website, noted that economic pressures also affect the safety of helicopter operations. Helicopter pilots work under financial stress. They strive to maintain high utilization rates, make flights when requested, complete flights as planned, meet schedules, please people, and … make money. I am transmitting a file with the Root Causes report for your reference in addition to my comments.

BLM contract helicopter pilots appear in a big hurry to gather as many horses as quickly as possible, presumably to maximize profits — they are paid a per-horse fee in addition to their flat-fee for service. They push the horses to gallop, even as the band approaches the wings of the corrals. The horses, lathered in sweat and heaving, come to an abrupt halt in the crowded pens, contrary to humane-care standards. However, it must be noted that the entity in charge — BLM — has allowed the pilots to behave in this manner.

Complacency — A Root Cause in 55 Percent of Helicopter Crashes

When a pilot has repetitively — and so far without incident — engaged in an activity that is dangerous, he may become complacent. Such a pilot would lose a sense of the risks that are inherent in what he is doing, becoming casual instead of careful. Boredom may also be a factor. With less vigilance, the pilot relaxes his standards, becomes careless, and puts himself and others at risk. Complacency leads to pilot error. The Root Causes study found complacency (as well as its fellow-traveler, overconfidence) to be a root cause of 55 percent of helicopter accidents. From the observed behavior of the BLM-roundup pilots, it can be inferred that they have become complacent. They appear to have lost awareness of the riskiness of their endeavors.

Here is an anonymous quotation that was included in the Root Causes report:

A Superior Pilot is One Who Stays Out of Trouble By Using Superior Judgment to Avoid Situations That Might Require The Use of Superior Skill.

BLM contract helicopter pilots cannot be said to meet this superior standard.

Helicopters — Subject to Brownouts in the Desert, Whiteouts in the Winter

When helicopters maneuver at low altitude, the rotors’ down-wash may create brownout — conditions of reduced visibility for the pilot due to blowing and recirculating dust and sand. Whiteout is the corresponding phenomenon with snow. Visual cues become obscured, and the horizon can disappear. Brownout can result in spatial disorientation — the pilot loses awareness of the orientation of the helicopter with respect to the earth. Engulfed in a swirl of dust or snow, the pilot might not be able to tell whether the helicopter is flying level or drifting into an object. In the visually-degraded environment of a brownout or whiteout, a helicopter-pilot can become spatially disoriented and crash. BLM personnel may be on board.

Here is the link to a news report on how the Military is studying the problem of brownout.
(Run-time: 1 minute, 41 seconds.)

Here is the link to a video of a police-helicopter landing (safely) in a whiteout.
(Run-time: 1 minute, 15 seconds)

BLM helicopter-roundups have taken place under both brownout and whiteout conditions.

In the Event of an Accident, Rescue Efforts Would Be a Challenge

In a helicopter roundup, the pilot flies off alone looking for bands of horses to bring back from across a herd management area that can encompass many square miles. Should a crash occur in rugged terrain at a remote location, medical help might not get there in time. While the pilot may be willing to accept this risk, surely BLM should not be putting a contractor in situations that could endanger his safety — and his life — merely to round up horses. And surely BLM’s own personnel should not be asked to risk their life to perform a non-emergency job.
HELICOPTERS — Dangerous to Horses
Inhumane Roundup Method

BLM’s use of helicopters to round up the wild horses is inhumane. The horses are terrified by the thunderous, high-intensity noise as they are pursued by the low-flying helicopter. They are blasted with sand, dirt, and gravel from the rotor wash. Panicked by the chaos, they stampede, injure themselves, and become separated from their babies and bandmates. Mares miscarry. Foals become orphans. Many horses die from stress, even more have to be euthanized. Helicopter-style roundups are abusive, especially to foals, older horses, and pregnant mares. This is unacceptable.

As has been documented on video, helicopter pilots conducting these roundups appear in a hurry to gather as many horses as quickly as possible, presumably to maximize profits — they are paid a flat fee plus a per-horse amount. Frustrated by the wild horses’ lack of cooperation and impatient to get them moving faster, the pilots ram the horses with the aircrafts’ landing skids, in some cases even flipping the animals into a somersault. There is video documentation of such abuses, and a court found that they had indeed occurred. There has also been documentation of contractors whipping wild horses in the face, kicking them in the head, dragging them by the neck with ropes, using electric prods on them.

Recommendations: Helicopter-style roundups must be abolished. Roundups in extreme temperatures — either the summer heat or the winter cold — must end. Stampeding horses for countless miles — causing them to lather with sweat and then bringing them to an abrupt halt — must be prohibited. Forcing the horses to run long distances over rough terrain, thereby wrecking the delicate hooves of the newborns and resulting in lameness and even death — must never happen again.

BLM should institute the kind approach to gathering wild horses. Roundups should be done slowly, quietly, and gently using the bait-and-water trapping approach. This method also tends to preserve family unity, which is essential to wild-horse social structure.
HELICOPTERS — Dangerous to the Environment
Possibility of a Post-Crash Fire’s Leading to a Wildfire

The crash of a roundup-helicopter could result in a fuel-spill. Especially in these times of drought, when there is an abundance of dry brush, a wildfire could be sparked. Thus, even the environment is at risk from the use of helicopters to round up wild horses. It bears repeating that, because herd management areas are typically in remote locations, it would be difficult to put out a post-crash fire and keep it from getting out of control.

Potential for Increase in Transmission of West Nile Virus

This year has seen West Nile Virus (WNV) infections among wildlife in Wyoming. According to data submitted to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), WNV infections have been found in mosquitoes, birds, sentinel animals, or veterinary animals.

Last year, there were at least 13 cases of humans that become infected by WNV, for which there is no vaccine or treatment. One resident of Powell died of WNV.

Helicopter-stampedes can result in wild horses trampling riparian areas and in so doing, creating stagnant water puddles — conditions ideal for mosquito breeding. The prospect of a helicopter gather increasing the likelihood of WNV outbreaks among wildlife was raised by BLM in a 2012 environmental assessment. BLM was concerned because WNV has been a significant cause of mortality among sage grouse and other bird species. The precautionary principle would call for protecting Wyoming’s residents — both human and avian — from exposure to harm.

Helicopters Emit Exhaust Gases that Contribute to Ozone and PM-10

Aircraft engines “emit water vapor, carbon dioxide (CO2), small amounts of nitrogen oxides (NOx), hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, sulfur gases, and soot and metal particles formed by the high-temperature combustion of jet fuel during flight.” (Please see the last paragraph on page 2 at link below.)

The EPA notes that ground-level ozone has many detrimental health effects, which is why it monitors that form of pollution and regulates it. Fuel combustion, transportation, and fugitive dust — all of which are operative in a helicopter roundup — contribute to ozone.

Except for one aircraft-services contractor who still flies a B47G-3B-2 helicopter whose reciprocating engine uses 100-octane low lead fuel (100LL), all the other contractors fly turbine-engine helicopters, which use jet fuel. Although basically kerosene, jet fuel contains many additives, except lead. According to one source (link below), in addition to 70 or so proprietary compounds whose identity is withheld as being confidential business information (CBI) and which might even include mercury, here are some of the compounds emitted in the exhaust of combusted jet fuel:

Freon 11, Freon 12, Methyl Bromide, Dichloromethane, cis-l,2-Dichloroethylene, 1,1,1-Trichloro-ethane, Carbon Tetrachloride, Benzene, Trichloroethylene, Toluene, Tetrachloroethene, Ethylbenzene, m,p-Xylene, o-Xylene, Styrene, 1,3,5-Trimethyl-benzene, 1,2,4-Trimethylbenzene, o-Dichlorobenzene, Formaldehyde, Acetaldehyde, Acrolein, Acetone, Propinaldehyde, Crotonaldehyde, Isobutylaldehyde, Methyl Ethyl Ketone, Benzaldehyde, Veraldehyde, Hexanaldehyde, Ethyl Alcohol, Acetone, Isopropyl Alcohol, Methyl Ethyl Ketone, Butane, Isopentane, Pentane, Hexane, Butyl Alcohol, Methyl Isobutyl Ketone, n,n-Dimethyl Acetamide, Dimethyl Disulfide, m-Cresol, 4-Ethyl Toulene, n-Heptaldehyde, Octanal, 1,4-Dioxane, Methyl Phenyl Ketone, Vinyl Acetate, Heptane, Phenol, Octane [referring to the saturated hydrocarbon not the short form of the term “octane rating”], Anthracene, Dimethylnapthalene (isomers), Flouranthene, 1-methylnaphthalene, 2-methylnaphthalene, Naph-thalene, Phenanthrene, Pyrene , Benzo(a)pyrene, 1-nitropyrene, 1,8-dinitropyrene, 1,3-Butadiene, sulfites, nitrites, nitrogen oxide, nitrogen monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, nitrogen trioxide, nitric acid, sulfur oxides, sulfur dioxide, sulfuric acid, urea, ammonia, carbon monoxide, ozone, particulate matter (PM10, PM2.5).

If the piston-engine aircraft is used, pollution also occurs. The 100LL “avgas” fuel, when combusted, emits lead, a dangerous neurotoxin. The EPA advises:

Lead emissions to air undergo dispersion and eventually deposit to surfaces. Lead deposited to soil and water can remain available for uptake by plants, animals and humans for long periods of time.

The EPA further states: “Lead is a persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic (PBT) pollutant listed among EPA’s 12 priority PBT pollutants.” Please see page 11 at link below.

Why would BLM even consider polluting the environment just to round up some horses?

Helicopters and Green-House Gas (GHG) Emissions

At the link below is a compare-and-contrast analysis of the GHG emissions produced by a passenger van versus by a helicopter transporting those same passengers. Interestingly, the aircraft in question, a B206 L4, is a model that one of the contractors uses. From other documents, we know that the roundup helicopter may refuel as many as four times a day. Such a frequency brings its own dangers of pollution from spills.

Bottom line: helicopters use much more fuel and, consequently, release many times the GHGs that a motor vehicle does. Which begs the question: Why would BLM employ such a polluting vehicle to round up equids when safe, humane alternatives are available? In fact, since there is no need for roundups at all, the cost, waste, and pollution are all the more indefensible.

Helicopters and Noise Pollution

An HMA is a designated space for wild horses and burros. It should be a place of peace and quiet. Using helicopters is a violation of that environment, disturbing the peace with the deafening roar of the chopper flying at very low altitude. It is unacceptable to use such a vehicle in a wild-horse area, polluting the environment with high-decibel noise and vibrations.

In its Report to Congress on Nonmilitary Helicopter Urban Noise Study, the Federal Aviation Administration noted that “a helicopter may be much more noticeable than a fixedwing aircraft because of the impulsive blade-slap sound.” Members of the public have a heightened reaction to helicopter-generated, low-frequency noise. This distinct “impulsive” (spontaneous changing) pattern is referred to as the “unique noise character” of helicopters. The FAA’s report explained:

When throbbing occurs at low-frequencies, the actual loudness is greater than that predicted by the equivalent level. Stated another way, even though the equivalent level of a sound may be below the threshold of audibility, the sound is audible.

The report further noted:

Rate of response is defined as the ratio or relative order of magnitude of percent average noticeability comparing two unique sources of noise. In this case, helicopter noise was compared to fixed-wing airplane and train noise. The rate of response function for helicopter sounds grew at three times the rate of response functions found for airplanes and trains. This paper showed that sound noticeability may be a significant variable for predicting human response to noise. The character of the sound was a key ingredient to noticeability. Helicopters, with their distinctive sound character, appeared to be more noticeable than other sounds for the same A-weighted sound exposure level.

Surely, wild horses will be similarly disturbed as well as traumatized by the roar, thunder, and rattle of the helicopter. In addition, they will suffer the brutality of being rammed by the landing skids to prod them into moving faster, as ample video documentation has revealed. Such cruelty took place in plain view of observers with video cameras. Imagine what went on out of their sight and scopes.

Helicopters and Decibel Readings

The following link contains a chart of decibel readings taken by a person that lived near a site in East Hampton, NY where helicopters operated out of the nearby airport. Note that for helicopters flying at “dangerously low, tree-top level,” readings of 85 to 90 decibels were common. Depending on the species, trees can be 30 to 60 feet tall or taller, and the helicopter would have been higher still to be above the tree tops.

At the link below, we learn that a Bell J-2A helicopter at 100 feet above ground level (AGL) reaches 100 dB. This reading is similar to those recorded by the private citizen referenced above.

According to another source, the decibel reading for helicopters reaches 105 dB, or louder than a jackhammer. Altitude: 100 feet AGL.

The following chart indicates that, at just 85 dB, hearing loss can occur. At 100 dB, the maximum safe exposure time is just 15 minutes. A roundup of a single band of wild horses can take much longer than 15 minutes.

At this link, there are more examples of sound levels in various environments.

BLM documents note — and we have seen for ourselves that — when herding equids, the roundup helicopter “would drop as low as 5 or 6 feet when turning the animals.” At this extremely low altitude, the noise level is likely well over 100 decibels, producing pain and suffering that is surely injurious to the acutely sensitive hearing of the equids. Combined with tremendous vibrations and the blasting rotor wash, the process is cruel and pitiless.

It is unacceptable to subject sentient creatures to such torment. America’s wild horses must be handled with care and concern. The agencies’ administrative convenience is the least important consideration.

Helicopters — Adverse Effects on the Wilderness, on the Wildlife

The impacts of using helicopters for roundups include the blowing of soils, injury to plants, and stress and possible injury to wildlife. The noise, pollution, stampeding of wild horses for miles-on-end would negatively impact the environment.
HELICOPTERS — Inappropriate Method for Counting Wild Horses
Aerial Inventories Produce Gross Over-Counts

BLM has also been employing aircraft to conduct inventories of wild horses and burros. However, the aerial method results in significant over-counts, as evidenced by BLM’s reporting of census figures that indicate reproductively-impossible birth-rates.

It is difficult to accurately count mustangs by means of a flyover, hard to tell horses apart and to know for sure that they haven’t been counted already. Due to wild horses’ roving nature — they are known to roam up to 50 miles a day — many instances of counting the same animals is probable. Indeed, wild horses may become particularly mobile, frightened into fleeing the deafening roar of the helicopter used for the flyover. Therefore, it is likely that horses are double-counted, and not per the “direct count” or “mark-resight” or the “simultaneous double-count” methods that BLM touts, but literally by counting many horses twice, perhaps even more than twice. Cows may be mistaken for horses. Deer may inadvertently get counted too.

An aerial inventory also tends to include “rock horses,” which fool the eye particularly when one is high above the landscape in an aircraft traveling at relatively high speeds. Related to this phenomenon is observer fatigue, which sets in after hours in a cramped, stuffy aircraft cabin, confined by seatbelt and crash-helmet, craning one’s neck to peer out the grimy windows, counting and photographing what look like they might be horses. The process repeats. And repeats. It gets tiresome. Airsickness may become an issue. The aircraft contractor and the census-takers know what they are supposed to find: Excess horses. Funds have been budgeted for a roundup, and with government allocations, it’s either “use ’em or lose ’em.” Why, even the worst-case modeling projections say there should be excess horses — just like the estimates predicted and the extrapolations seemed to show. So, excess horses are “found.” Confirmation-bias at work.

BLM needs an accurate method of taking inventory. The current approach has proven unreliable. Impossibly-high estimates of wild horse and burro populations have led to unnecessary removals, costly holding, and impaired relations with grazing permit-holders (who become alarmed by reports of a mustang population explosion) and wild-horse-and-burro advocates (who know there cannot be even half the number of mustangs on the range that BLM claims).

Recommendations: BLM-Wyoming should contract the census-taking function to independent experts, ideally ones associated with a university that has a strong animal-sciences program. BLM should research new technologies for remotely tracking wild horses and burros and then procure the system that best serves the purpose. There might even be a way to link the tracking devices to a data-base that would store comprehensive information on each animal. By employing technological approaches to tracking, BLM will secure accurate, reliable data for management purposes, including a complete demographic breakdown of the wild horses and burros in every HMA along with each equid’s genetic profile.

Why Would an Over-Count Be So Bad?

BLM justifies the need for a roundup when it estimates that horses in excess of the “appropriate management level” (AML) populate an HMA and/or have taken up residence outside an HMA. From this estimated population figure, BLM typically subtracts the lower bound of the AML to determine how many horses to remove.

For example, let’s say an HMA’s AML-range is 150 to 200 horses but that now the herd has grown to 300. BLM conducts an aerial inventory but “sees” 500 due to its over-count. It then plans a roundup thusly:

500 — estimated population — 67 percent higher than actual
− 150 — low AML
350 — targeted for removal

BLM assumes the helicopter roundup will achieve a gather “efficiency” of 80 percent. Accordingly, BLM expects that, of the 500 horses it estimates are in residence …

400 — will be captured, of which …
350 — will be removed and
50 — will be released back.

The 100 that supposedly don’t get caught, plus the 50 that are to be released = 150.

The helicopter roundup ensues. Just 300 horses are captured — but they constitute the entire herd. All are removed (“gate-cut”) because the gather seemed to fail to achieve its “efficiency” goal when, in reality, the roundup got 100 percent, thus exceeding the goal and wiping out the herd. BLM assumes that 200 horses cleverly hid and evaded capture, and that they are still on the range, breeding away. In fact, the herd has been rounded up into extinction.

Aircraft Census and Gather Contractors — Apparent Conflict of Interest

The aircraft service providers used by BLM for conducting inventories and roundups know the score — if “excess” horses are found, a roundup will be scheduled and they can make some serious money. Thus, there is motivation to find — or create the appearance of — an over-population.

Doing so would be easy. The same area could be crisscrossed multiple times. BLM staff could easily become disoriented and not be able to tell that they had been over an area already. The horses could be spooked into fleeing outside their HMA, which would accomplish four things inuring to the financial benefit of a helicopter contractor. Scaring the horses and driving them out of the HMA could …

Cause them to be counted twice — once inside, and once outside the HMA,
Gin up the number of horses that appear to populate the HMA,
Automatically target such horses for removal, and
Result in the false appearance of a need for a roundup.

Thus, the helicopter inventory method suggests the appearance of a conflict of interest. The potential conflict pertains to the incentive to increase revenues through generating more billable services and more billable horses.

Recommendations: First, reform the census methods as earlier advised. Then, reform the roundup procedures by abolishing the helicopter-stampede method and instead, employing bait-and-water trapping. These corrective actions will eliminate the conflict of interest.
MOTORIZED VEHICLES — Dangerous to Wild Horses’ Health
Motorized Transport — Long Travel is Cruel, and Results in Illness, Deaths

Helicopters are not the only vehicles of concern. Trucks and trailers transport the gathered horses and burros, first to short-term holding, and eventually to long-term holding in most cases. Which brings up transit time. Prolonged confinement in trailer-travel is bad for horses’ health. BLM’s procedures call for mustangs that are in transit to be offloaded, rested, watered, and fed during journeys lasting more than 24 hours. However, the rest-stop provision may be waived (and probably usually is) if the “stress” of receiving a rest stop is deemed likely greater than the stress of uninterrupted travel. The procedures I’ve reviewed do not reveal who makes this determination or who monitors compliance. It is difficult to envision any scenario that would provide for an easy offloading of wild horses. Are there contract facilities along the way for this purpose? BLM does not say, but probably not. Thus, the supposed provision for humane transport is merely theoretical. The mustangs suffer terribly, since these trips to long-term holding surely take more than 24 hours.

On the “Tips for Traveling with Horses” episode of the “Best of America by Horseback” show that aired on RFD-TV on February 16, 2011, the guest veterinarian advised that horses should not be transported longer than 12 hours. Studies have disclosed a higher incidence of fevers and respiratory infections when travel-time exceeds 12 hours. Thus, there is no doubt that the wild horses, already stressed and crowded together in a cattle-car for more than twice that amount of time, will suffer illnesses as a direct result of the prolonged transport. The extended period in transit may be one reason why mustang fatalities in long-term holding (eight percent) exceed both those that occur in roundups (one percent) and those that take place in short-term holding (five percent).

So, here we have costly roundups, extravagant expenditures of taxpayer funds to ship wild horses around the country when there is room for them right where they are, and an inhumane method of said transport leading to more expenditures for veterinary care due to illnesses brought on by excessive time in transit.

Recommendations: BLM should create a mustang-transport task force to come up with ways of routing horses so that time in transit is always less than 12 hours. The team needs to develop not just procedures but definitive ways of verifying driver compliance. Possibly, electronic tracking mechanisms could be placed on the trailers to monitor location, speed, and other data. Intermediate check-points could be established. Also, BLM needs to devise a way to monitor to ensure contract drivers are operating their truck safely, and in a way that minimizes stress on the horses. Merely having rules and securing assurances are not enough. Trust, but verify.

Too Long Standing Still

There is also a concern about the length of time horses may be kept in trailers that are not moving. BLM’s policy says that wild horses may not be left standing “… for a combined period of greater than three (3) hours.” Crammed into a trailer in the hot sun, three hours is a long time. This provision needs to be reconsidered and reformed.

Recommendations: Total time for the horses to be confined in a trailer without the vehicle being in motion should be limited to 1½ hours. During rest and refueling stops, the trailer should be parked so that it is protected from the elements. Another issue that must be resolved is how to verify and enforce driver-compliance.
Crunch the Numbers

Expenditures of government funds need to be estimated, evaluated, and justified. BLM-Wyoming must complete an analysis of all costs, both immediate and long-term, of using helicopters and motorized vehicles to round up and cart off horses rather than cart in materials for range-improvements — such as to construct guzzlers. The cost-benefit analysis needs to crunch the numbers to ensure that public funds would be spent prudently. A thorough analysis will bring clarity to the decision-process. Rounding up wild horses generates immediate and on-going, long-term costs. It is an unsustainable approach involving …

Population inventories and monitoring flights via contract helicopter service
A helicopter roundup of a certain number of wild horses
Fertility-control treatments administered to mares
Removal of those horses
Transport of said horses
Short-term holding to prepare horses for adoption, and
Long-term holding for the many horses that are not adopted.

Through crunching the numbers, BLM will likely determine that a better use of its funds — and its helicopters and motorized vehicles — would be for rain-catchment projects. Guzzlers would improve conditions on the range for all water-consumers — livestock, wild horses, and wildlife — for decades to come. Thus, expenditures for such beneficial range improvements would not merely be costs but long-term investments.
End Helicopter Roundups

I urge BLM-Wyoming to repudiate helicopter roundups and, instead, implement bait-and-water trapping as the method for gathering wild horses. I ask you to take this approach right away.

Helicopter roundups should have ceased long ago. The spectacle of this brutal roundup method being used against the wild horses has horrified the nation. It is in the Agency’s own self-interest to stop incurring negative publicity and casting itself in a bad light. I urge you to reform your methods. End helicopter roundups.

Cruelty-Free Methods — No Helicopters, No Whips, No Electric Prods

I urge the BLM-Wyoming to ban the use of helicopters, whips, and electric prods in gathering and maneuvering wild horses. It is time to implement cruelty-free, whip-free, prod-free operations.

Bait Trapping Only

I urge the BLM-Wyoming to require the use of the kind method of gathering wild horses — bait trapping. This method is a true best management practice. Because bait-trapping has been proven effective, it makes sense to adopt it — after Wyoming’s wild-horse herds substantially exceed the minimum-viable population (MVP) level prescribed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) with regard to wild equids.

Recommendations: Use bait trapping exclusively. The goal is for bait-trapping to replace helicopter roundups. Bait-trapping should not be just another method of gathering horses but the method. I urge the BLM-Wyoming to embrace the superior bait-trapping approach.

Bait Trapping and Public Observation — Transparency, Accountability Essential

The public is interested in observing wild-horse roundups. Even though bait trapping is safe and kind to the horses, we wish to see the process in action. But because this method is slower, and requires waiting for the horses to enter a trap, observing in person will be challenging to arrange.

Recommendations: Install real-time video cameras — “caval-cams” — at the trap sites and corrals Live-stream the video on your website. That way, any member of the public can monitor a gather online. Think of the public-relations advantages of video-cams over the current practice of keeping observers unhappily far away from the site. Of course, there may still be some observers that prefer to visit the traps and corrals. That option should still be available. However, it will no longer be a contentious matter. Bait trapping is a gentle process, so most of the safety precautions currently necessary due to the dangers of low-flying helicopters chasing stampeding horses will be eliminated.

Learning the New Method

If Wyoming’s BLM staffers do not feel qualified to conduct bait trapping, there are trained units that could be brought in to do it or to show staff how it is done. Learning something new is an opportunity for personal as well as professional growth. BLM’s Billings Field Office (Montana) eschews helicopters in favor of bait trapping. Externally, the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign and The Cloud Foundation can refer you to an an expert in water trapping that works with the US Forest Service and, thus, is an approved contractor.

When to Gather

When herds significantly exceed the IUCN population guidelines for sustainable genetic viability, a bait-trapping gather may be necessary. The appropriate time to gather wild horses is in autumn — before the snowfall season. By then, foals are older, and temperatures are cooler. Small-scale, annual fall events will mean fewer horses coming up for adoption, and they will be available just in time for the holidays. The horse adoption market won’t be overwhelmed — as it is now — and fewer mustangs will need to be placed in sanctuaries, preserves, or long-term holding. Such an approach will prove cost-effective, enabling BLM to redirect the budget to rangeland improvements and other purposes.

Trapping, or Entrapment?

BLM has been exploiting alleged complaints from private-property owners of wild-horse trespass to set up capture-corrals on those very properties. The corrals are baited to induce the wild horses to trespass, and when they inevitably do, they are punished with permanent denial of their freedom. This approach is wrong.

Siting bait-traps on private property invites trespass and rewards it, likely provoking even more wild horses to leave their herd management area (HMA) than the few that may have wandered. Further, BLM then uses the private-property location of the traps as an excuse to bar humane observers, thus shrouding agency-operations in secrecy, which raises suspicion as to what you are hiding from the public.

I would also point out the appearance of a conflict of interest — permit-holding ranchers that use the HMAs to graze livestock are often the very ones complaining. By getting rid of the wild horses, they free up more room for their cattle. Some unethical permit-holders may even lure wild horses onto their property for this very reason, thereby giving themselves an unfair competitive advantage.


1. BLM should install guzzlers and mineral licks well-inside each HMA to encourage the wild horses to remain within the boundaries of their dedicated habitat. If supplemental forage is provided, it must be dropped toward the middle of the HMA. These proactive steps should be taken first. The goal is to draw the mustangs back into the HMA and to give them motives to stay there.

2. Complaints of wild-horse trespass received from permit-holders should be investigated and verified, with the “bring-’em-back-home” measures described above taken as the first response.

3. The perimeters of the HMAs should be fenced, and those fences, maintained.

4. Bait-traps must be sited on BLM land, where public-observation can occur.

Semi-Trucks and Trailers (Big Rigs), and Pickup Trucks

Use such vehicles to cart in materials … such as to haul water during drought, to bring supplemental forage to the wild horses, and to transport construction-materials for the installation of water catchments — guzzlers.

Partnership with Wild-Horse-and-Burro Stakeholders

The Wild Horse and Burro Program is a high-profile / hot-button topic. The Program is national in scope, and is monitored by dedicated advocates. Comments received from the public are beneficial, but consultation-efforts should not end there. BLM-Wyoming needs to cultivate real partnerships and establish good working-relationships with mustang-advocates, particularly with the leaders of the prominent national, state, and local organizations working to protect the interests of wild horses and burros. Representatives of our sector must be formally included in the planning process right from the start and all along the way.

Recommendations: BLM-Wyoming needs to establish an advisory committee of mustang-advocates and work with us to formulate policy — such as how to gather wild horses and burros. I call upon BLM to …

cooperate, and

… with us. Wild-horse advocates across the nation look forward to consensus-based decisions and to the development of best management practices concerning wild horses. As the recent National Academies of Sciences report said: “… management should engage interested and affected parties and also be responsive to public attitudes and preferences. BLM should engage with the public in ways that allow public input to influence agency decisions.”

Value All Comments — Publish All Results — Strive for Consensus

I urge BLM-Wyoming to publish the minutes of the hearing — as you did in 2013 — including the number of persons that participate in the hearing, both those that attend in person and those that submit comments. Show that you value every response on its own merits rather than labeling some as “form letters.” The Constitution provides for the right of citizens to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. The Constitution does not require each complainant to formulate a unique letter. Indeed, the very word “petition” connotes a document that multiple parties sign in agreement and solidarity regarding a particular issue. At court, there are even class-action suits, wherein many plaintiffs join together to seek justice regarding a matter of mutual concern. One action, many parties.

Please report …

How many persons attended the hearing and how many submitted comments,
How many and what percentage favored or opposed helicopters and why,
What different alternatives were proposed, and
What modifications, corrections, improvements will BLM make per the public input.

The process is supposed to build consensus. The public-involvement component is designed to get feedback from those persons interested enough to participate in the planning process. Disregarding feedback leads to decisions that are not supported by the majority of stakeholders.

Recommendations: Each and every comment must be honored fully, individually, and collectively, with the numerical results published.

Show Respect — Provide Ample Time for Comments — Encourage Dialogue

BLM-Wyoming’s 2013 hearing in this regard lasted just 13 minutes! The meeting commenced at 5:30 p.m. and concluded at 5:43 p.m. The six attendees were each allowed a maximum of two (2) minutes to speak. Questions were disallowed. A number of the attendees had traveled from out-of-state to take part in the hearing. By severely limiting the time allowed and by prohibiting questions, BLM showed contempt for these dedicated citizen-taxpayer-advocates and for the public-input process itself.

BLM staff also appeared disrespectful and distrustful of the attendees, seeming to suggest that the participants might become unruly. The hearing manager — who went on at length about all the “procedural guidelines” — issued the following warning to participants:

Profanity and vulgar language will not be allowed. Please keep your statements clean, or you will be escorted off the premises.

The hearing manager concluded the event … by suggesting that attendees might try to hide in the restrooms!

I would ask that everyone gather themselves and proceed to the exit. The building will be cleared. The restrooms will be checked and the building secured. This hearing is now adjourned. Thank you.


A required annual hearing needs to be a meaningful event. I suggest that a minimum of four hours be set aside for the hearing. A full day would be better. If the public were to see that BLM took these hearings seriously, more persons would surely attend.

Ample time must be reserved for each participant to comment, with the amount of time extended if there is a low number in attendance. I suggest 30 minutes per person. Question-and-answer periods are essential, and dialogue should be encouraged.

BLM staffers should be provided training in customer-service skills, and they need to be reminded that courtesy and respect must be shown to members of the public. BLM employees must be reminded that they are duty-bound to honor the public-input component, which the subject hearing is meant to fulfill.


Renounce the use of helicopters under any circumstances.
Use motorized vehicles only to carry in water, forage, or materials.
Empower wild-horse advocates to have a real influence on BLM processes
Respect hearing-participants, and respect the public-input component.

Thank you for this opportunity to participate in this hearing by submitting substantive comments. Would you please keep me informed and on your mailing list to be notified regarding matters that affect the wild horses of Wyoming.


Marybeth Devlin