Ranchers losing battle over wild horses, grazing restrictions

by Angela Lu Fulton
Posted 11/19/14, 08:52 am

As federal officials and ranchers butt heads over grazing on public land, the government’s protection of wild horses stokes the ire of many ranchers. For 75-year-old Ben Colvin of Goldfield, Nev., the wild horses ultimately drove him out of a livelihood that had been in his family for four generations.

In 1971, Congress passed the Wild Horse and Burro Act, which made it a crime for anyone to kill wild horses or burros on public lands. But the number of horses has exploded to 48,000, nearly double what the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) says the rangelands can sustain.

By law, Colvin couldn’t touch the horses, even as they ate his cattle’s feed and drank their water. He remembers seeing his hillside thick with the animals, “like a bunch of maggots.” About 600 horses grazed by a water source that could support at most 170 horses. Whenever he asked the BLM to round up the horses, they said they were too busy and couldn’t come out. Without the ability to slaughter excess horses, the animals not only use up resources, but many ended up starving to death, a drawn-out process that takes six to seven days. “There’s nothing more inhumane than to see a horse die that way,” Colvin said.

With his cattle starving, Colvin shipped all but 50 head out of the area in 1990. Two weeks later, the BLM finally rounded up the horses.

On top of his problem with horses, in 1994 the BLM required Colvin to move his cattle between three of his four pastures every three months, allowing one to rest. But the dry climate in Nevada meant that rainstorms could drench one part of his land while the rest stayed dry. By restricting when and where he could graze, his cattle often went hungry on the drier land.

“I fight the weather all the time, I deal with it, there’s nothing I can do about it,” Colvin said. “But for people to come along and tell me how to do it, they just put me out of business.”

Frustrated, he refused to sign his grazing permit in 1995 and started racking up trespassing fees for the 50 cattle he had left. The BLM rounded up his cattle in 2001, and threatened to sell them at a live auction show unless he paid $70,000 in fees. Colvin and other protesters arrived at the auction yard with signs that read “Cattle rustling is a capital offense,” upset that the BLM took their animals without court order.

After years of litigation that cost him $500,000, Colvin finally decided to sell off his cattle in 2008, giving up his ranch and water rights. Wearing a cowboy hat, denim shirt, and blue jeans, the 4th-generation rancher looked down and winced at the memory: “Selling my cattle that day felt like chopping off my right hand.”

Angela Lu Fulton

Angela is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine and a part-time editor for WORLD Digital. She is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Angela resides in Taipei, Taiwan. Follow her on Twitter @angela818.

Read more from this writer