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The Checkerboard

Roughly half the wild horses in Wyoming are known as the Checkerboard Horses because in the 1800’s when the railroad was being built here the government did something that in my opinion ranks as one of stupidest moves ever, one that has basically destroyed the environment of the west and from which it still has not recovered. This includes the extermination of the buffalo, all the top predators (more on that later) and of course the indigenous people. In addition to the extermination of all large native beings as well as the Passenger Pigeon (at one point one in four birds in the U.S. was a Passenger Pigeon!), a century of overgrazing has turned what once was grassland into the Great Basin desert. Due to the phenomenon of generational amnesia, today we imagine that this area was always a desert except a million years ago when dinosaurs roamed, however most of our deserts were actually created in the last hundred and fifty years, due to poor grazing practices driven by the same (Eurocentric, patriarchal, manifest destiny informed) greed that continues to destroy rather than steward our planet. But I digress.

In order to hurry the settlement (and destruction) of the west the U.S. Government took the view that this land was “vacant” and “uninhabited” conveniently depriving Native Americans, like slaves, of human status. Our government gave Union Pacific as an incentive, (if you recall your American History it was a race, hence the term “railroaded through”) a section of Public Land, or one square mile, for every mile of track it laid. But it wasn’t contiguous land, it was every other mile for first ten, and later twenty miles north and south of the track, resulting in what is now called The Checkerboard.

CheckerboardBecause of the prohibitive cost of fencing this land remains unfenced, as it should for the benefit of wild life and the health of the range and it is my understanding that the BLM is mandated to manage the entire

Dark yellow is BLM. 40 mile swath along I 80 is Checkerboard.

Dark yellow is BLM. 40 mile swath along I 80 is Checkerboard.

Checkerboard as if it is one piece of land. It would follow then, that what is good stewardship for the BLM sections is good for the privately held sections.

This seems simple enough but of course it’s not. The grazing concerns claim that the horses are overgrazing their (government subsidized) allotments. Hunters are concerned that the horses are using resources that should be only for game animals, though populations should be kept in control by the missing top predators, which of course have been eradicated by the grazing concerns. Grazing allotments are for grazing sheep or cattle, which obviously are not native to the landscape. Yet raising buffalo does not get one the allotment or subsidy that cattle do. So the government essentially undercuts anyone trying to raise good meat animals that are indigenous to and help rather than hurt the range and supports and subsidizes ranchers who are grazing animals that are more harmful on Public Lands. Public lands. Now you can take the view that the land belongs to the government, or, I would argue, since it’s public land, it belongs to the public. You and me. Or, that it’s a public land trust, belonging to the public and held in trust by the government. Either way, the government then has a fiduciary responsibility to manage the land in a way that is best for public, not caving into private concerns. The cattle are not owned by the public nor does the public derive profit from them. Cattle are a privately held asset. So to summarize, we’ve got the owners of privately held assets pressuring the BLM to remove horses from public and privately held land that is administered by the government so that they may increase their profits by use of land belonging to you and me, at no benefit to you or me.

Grazing concerns lobbying state and federal government for both use of public land and the removal of all predators is nothing new, but the issue of management of wild horses is complicated by this checkerboard scenario as horses cannot see the imaginary line between public and private square miles.

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