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Fact-checking the New York Times: Maps and data expose cattle, not wild horses, as looming crisis.

False reporting on wild horses isn't just a NYT problem — and neither is the resistance to fixing it.


On 4/13/2020, a third New York Times reader (a researcher and writer specializing in public lands issues and Freedom of Information Act/FOIA investigations) submitted a corrections request (below) to Times editors. (See corrections requests #1 here and #2 here).

Times editors did not respond.

Dear Editors,

David Philipps’ New York Times article “A Mustang Crisis Looms in the West” (3/22/20) requires correction for falsely blaming degradation of public lands in the West on wild horses, in both the headline and the body of the article. 

Data and maps from the Bureau of Land management (BLM) conclusively show private livestock, not wild horses, are overwhelming public lands in the West, both in grazing territory and sheer numbers (relative to wild horses).

Left: Bureau of Land Management livestock grazing allotments.
Right: BLM Wild Horses and Burros Program herd management areas.

Compare the green areas showing BLM livestock grazing allotments (on the left) to the light blue areas showing BLM wild horse herd management areas (HMAs – on the right). Clearly, wild horses aren’t all over public lands in the West (as both Mr. Philipps and his sources claim), but cattle are.

On the Challis HMA referred to in Philipps’ article, 185 wild horses (BLM number) have at times been outnumbered by over 6,000 cows according to the BLM’s Rangeland Administration System (BLM grazing management reports).

The BLM counts a cow/calf pair as only ONE animal, so the graph below shows the ACTUAL number of cattle (both cows and calves) on the Challis HMA (in red), as compared to numbers of wild horses (in blue):

NOTE: The numbers of cattle and grazing periods are based on the BLM’s Rangeland Administration System (RAS). The numbers of cattle have been reduced on these charts based on the percentage of the grazing allotment that is on public lands. The numbers of wild horses are based on low AML (Appropriate Management Level).

The BLM claims there are 177 Herd Management Areas in the West, but only 160 of these have any wild horses or burros on them. The wild horses & burros on these HMAs are being squeezed out by livestock grazing and oil and gas leases. 

The real crisis, and degradation to public lands, is caused by the BLM allowing huge numbers of privately owned livestock to graze on public lands.  Ranchers fiercely fight to not lower the numbers of their livestock, since many get bank loans based on their BLM grazing allotments (public lands). 

According to a report by WildEarth Guardians titled Mortgaging Our Natural Heritage:

“Former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt has written that federal public lands livestock grazing ‘is the most damaging use of public land,’ and reams of scientific studies support that assertion.  

Federal public lands grazing is also among the most expensive public lands boondoggles foisted on American taxpayers. The Government Accountability Office determined that federal grazing programs cost at least $144 million annually (minus grazing fees).  A separate economic study conducted by independent and BLM economists found that the direct and indirect costs of BLM and Forest Service public lands grazing are probably much higher, between $500 million and $1 billion per year.”

I request that you revise Philipps’ article to remove false claims from both the headline and the body.

I am a researcher and writer specializing in public lands issues and FOIA investigations.  I’ve submitted over 150 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to federal agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), U.S. Forest Service, USDA’s APHIS and the National Park Service.  I have been the plaintiff, or represented the plaintiff, on 18 FOIA lawsuits filed by FOIA attorneys Daniel Stotter and Peter Sorenson. 

I hosted a radio show for five years (Wild Horse & Burro Radio), that included public lands issues, wild horse & burro issues, agricultural and food safety issues, animal welfare issues and environmental issues. 

Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions.  Please let me know what you plan to do to correct the false claims made in the headline and body of Mr. Philipps’ article.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Best regards, 

Debbie Coffey

Please leave a comment below, follow me @viglet on twitter and read these other Daily Pitchfork posts pushing mainstream news outlets to correct their errors:

Fact-checking 13-year old photographic images in the Washington Post (1/22/21)

Fact-checking 9 errors in the Washington Post, Seattle Times and Houston Chronicle (12/12/20)

Fact-checking errors and omissions in the New York Times (12/12/20)

Fact-checking The New York Times: Sources claim wild horse damage, but photos show cattle did it.(12/12/20)

About Vickery Eckhoff (16 Articles)
Vickery Eckhoff is the co-founder and executive editor of The Daily Pitchfork. Her articles on wild horses, public lands grazing and the meat industry have been published in Forbes, the Huffington Post, Newsweek/The Daily Beast, Alternet and Salon.
Contact: Website

3 Comments on Fact-checking the New York Times: Maps and data expose cattle, not wild horses, as looming crisis.

  1. Krista Hubbard // January 12, 2022 at 1:56 pm // Reply

    So, understanding cattle are the problem, how do we ensure that a roundup like what has been ongoing since October of 2021 to present day 1/12/2022, the Largest in history, never takes place again. The BLM claims they don’t knowingly sell to slaughter houses, but there is a lot of information that indicates it isn’t true. The buyers come in from Canada and Mexico. I am just puzzled as to why this is allowed to continue, and wonder how it can be stopped. It seems the BLM is not properly following the Wild Horse and Burro Act of 1971. Any response would be appreciated.

  2. Merete holm // August 20, 2022 at 5:40 pm // Reply

    Thank you for raising the “elephant in the room”. The truth will never be known by the public unless the media enlighten people. Once the mustangs are gone or inbred, they will not return. It takes 100-200 years for any domestic animal species to become wild and strong. In between will be suffering and mass death. We cannot allow them to go extinct. They need our protection to keep their strong bloodlines wild and free. They are an American heritage. We own them and we owe our next generations.

  3. Hi Vickery,
    You are my new hero. Thanks for this article proving, by BLMs own data, that private livestock grazing allotments on our public lands are the cause for land degradation – Not our wild horses. I am sharing this far & wide.

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