Story and Interview By Steven Long, Photo by Laura Leigh, Horseback Magazine
HOUSTON, (Horseback) – Last winter when about 160 horses died in the bitter cold of a Nevada desert’s winter, wild horse advocates issued howls of protest climaxing when a foal, exhausted after being stampeded for miles over rocky ground, lost his hooves and perished.
Animal advocates will not witness such an event this year because the horses are being held in a compound on private property leased at taxpayer’s expense but closed to the public.
Today, cowboys in a howling helicopter stampeded horses into a man made trap 120 miles north of Winnemucca, Nevada in the federal Bureau of Land Management’s Tri State/Calico Complex. A thousand horses have been stampeded into traps since November. The roundups just began again after a break for the holidays. The animals are being held in large holding pens on private land closed to the public except during tightly controlled visiting hours.
With roughly 245 million acres under its control, Horseback asked the BLM man in charge of the “gather” why horses are being housed on private, rather than public land. The BLM’s Gene Seidlitz, on the record:
HORSEBACK ONLINE: We understand the press and public are restricted from viewing the horses in the facility where the captured horses are being held.
GENE SEIDLITZ, BLM: Except on Saturday only where the private landowner has agreed to allow public access to view the holding corrals with animals.
HORSEBACK: Why is it up to the private landowner?
BLM: The private landowner and Sun-J (the helicopter contractor) have entered into an agreement for the use of that private land.
HORSEBACK: Why is it up to Sun-J?
BLM: Well Sun-J is the contractor, as you know…
HORSEBACK: I understand.
BLM: Based on the location of the holding corrals it offers better access to not only water but improved roads.
HORSEBACK: Let me ask you this Gene. You stand behind Sun-J as your contractor, I presume?
BLM: Could you repeat that question?
HORSEBACK: You stand behind Sun-J as your contractor I presume?
BLM: Do I stand by them?
HORSEBACK: Yes, are you supporting their decision?
BLM: To use private land?
BLM: That decision was not mine.
HORSEBACK: Answer the question, yes or no, do you support that decision?
BLM: The decision, like I said earlier was not mine. But obviously they felt this facility on private land had a capability and infrastructure in place in terms of water, corrals, and road access.
HORSEBACK: I suppose I’m going to ask you a third time, do you support that determination on the part of Sun-J to do this and deny the public access to this?
BLM: Well, it’s only a partial denial of access.
HORSEBACK: No, six days out of seven is a full denial.
BLM: However, we have allowed complete access at the gather site. What we’ve also done based on this private land’s lack of access besides Saturday is we’ve taken pictures of the horses and we’ve posted pictures to our web.
HORSEBACK: How many horses have been “gathered” so far?
BLM: As of last night the total is 1,145.
HORSEBACK: How many have died?
BLM: Cumulative to date non gather related it’s seven, and gather related deaths; it’s three, so it’s a total of ten.
HORSEBACK: As you know, Sun-J was subject to criticism after the recent report was made public. Have you hired outside scrutiny to report on that firm?
BLM: In terms of?
HORSEBACK: In terms of abuse. In terms of getting the helicopter too close to the horses.
BLM: As a result of the Triple B gather?
HORSEBACK: As a result of the report that recently came out citing them.
BLM: Since the release of that Triple B report, along with the press release from the director Abbey, what generated that report was an internal review of gather operations with the focus of humane and safe treatment of horses. So I’m keenly aware of the report, of the recommendations of the report, the membership that was put together for the team to do that report, absolutely, yes I am.
HORSEBACK: Again, is Sun-J under increased scrutiny?
BLM: It’s safe to say from the start of the Tri State/Calico Complex gather which started on November 19th, the day before they started, I as the district manager had a pre-gather briefing with them in which I outlined my leadership intent in terms of expectations of safe and humane treatment of the wild horses and the wild burros associated with the Tri State/Calico Complex. That was a written document that we went through line by line and they had a copy with them, and hopefully that copy is still with them because I presented it to them.
HORSEBACK: I have seen a photograph which was taken yesterday or the day before of Sun-J on this gather getting extraordinarily close to the animals
BLM: In terms of that photograph, I believe I’ve probably seen the same one based on dialog I had this morning with two of our visitors that I met with before they left our facility before they left to go to the gather site. I will, based on that picture, be out to the gather tomorrow on site as well as Saturday to watch operations from the gather site location and also will be interacting and dialoguing with the primary corps, public affairs, our visitors, our law enforcement, and then also the contractor. I also plan to then go to the temporary holding facility which is on private land and also observe the animals and integrate and participate with the staff there.
HORSEBACK: One final question. How much taxpayer money is being spent to keep these horses on private land instead of on BLM land, which would be free?
BLM: In terms of taxpayer money for the private land use, there is none.
HORSEBACK: How much is the contractor paying for the private land use?
BLM: That information I do not have, and that information probably exists between the landowner and Sun-J.
HORSEBACK: Is the United States government paying Sun-J with taxpayer money?
BLM: Steven, can you repeat that question please?
HORSEBACK: Is the United States of America paying Sun-J with taxpayer money?
BLM: For the gather overall for the safe removal of excess horses from public land, yes, taxpayer’s money is being used.