America's wild horses and burros have continued to be an issue of intense interest to the American public. The year 2013 was no exception. Issues of range management, slaughter, abuse during roundups and in facilities continued to surface.
The year began with legal actions filed against the BLM roundup at the Owyhee Complex. The suit alleges that wild horses are being illegally removed from the range.
In addition the suit illustrated horses run into barbed wire, babies run to exhaustion and intensive use of an electric cattle prod. On January 10th the court issued strong language against the abuse. Several motions were filed in this case over the course of the year and the suit is expected to go to hearing.
Early in 2013 the Department of Interior (DOI), that umbrellas several agencies including the BLM, saw former Secretary Ken Salazar step down. In 2012 an investigation by Dave Philipps (for ProPublica) uncovered 1700 wild horses sold by the BLM to a single kill buyer that has apparent ties to Salazar. During a press conference Salazar actually threatened journalist Philipps with a "punch in the face" for publicly asking him about the sales of wild horses.
Salazar's replacement Sally Jewell, former REI executive, immediately began to shuffle questions on the program over to the expected National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report. The study had been commissioned nearly two years prior at an estimated cost of 1.5 million dollars. The report was issued in June and gave the program a failing grade pointing to a "lack of data" that supports and decision making. Since the report was issued no reforms in failing policy have surfaced.
The BLM's contentious relationship with the press continued as legal actions carried by the advocacy group Wild Horse Education against press restrictions battled in and out of the courtroom all year. The litigation was joined through Amicus briefs by fifteen news organizations including: The Reporters Committee for a Free Press, NPR, Seattle Times and others. In December the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals placed this case into mandatory mediation for 60 days with a report to be filed with the court if no agreements can be reached in this case that has spanned over three years in the legal system.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) wild horse and burro program was under scrutiny as the government shutdown momentarily halted roundups. Networks such as NBC, the Travel Channel and NPR ran major stories on wild horses. Actions by the BLM received hundreds of thousands of comments from a dissatisfied public.
As 2013 drew to a close serious public land management issues are rising that may very well make a bleak picture even more fragile. Sage Grouse management plans are being formulated that could likely impact wild horses and burros in an extremely negative fashion as private livestock interests push to protect government subsidized public land grazing. The Grazing Improvement Act (if passed) will allow livestock producers to skirt environmental review for decades. And the Nevada Association of Counties (NACO) organizes legal action supported by the Cattleman's Association against wild horses.
Horse slaughter is standing on the edge of coming back to American soil. Regardless of the simple fact that horse meat is not a safe food source slaughter plants are pushing to process American horses. Many advocates for wild horses have feared for years that a failure to change policy and the continual stockpiling of American horses in government facilities (more than twice the number of wild horses sit in facilities than exist wild on the range) is a sign that wild horses are in direct line for slaughter. Many appointed members of the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board are openly in support of horse slaughter.
2014 promises to be an important year for the survival of wild horses and burros on America's public land. The Chinese call 2014 the "year of the horse." It may very well be that the fate of America's symbol of Freedom will be decided this year. Will we reform this program and begin to protect wild horses and burros and the asset they are to our American soul? Or will we turn our back and choose to put money into the pockets of a select few and in a betrayal to the contribution these horses and burros made to not only the building of our country, but our own identity as "strong, intelligent, untamable" Americans?
The group WildHorseEducation.org created a "Year in Review 2013." They wrote a timeline and crated a "year in review video" of their work to protect wild horses and burros.
To read the entire timeline, and to watch the video, Click Here.
Source: The Examiner, by Laura Leigh, founder of Wild Horse Education
Secretary Jewell seems to be willfully ignoring a report by the National Academy of Sciences. Why?
Nearly seven months into her tenure as Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell last Thursday at last made her first extended public comments about one of the most controversial and under-reported aspects of her portfolio as steward of the nation's public lands. Speaking at the National Press Club, she addressed in detail a question about the nation's beleaguered wild horses, which in the past few years have been rounded up by the tens of thousands from those public lands and dispatched to vast holding facilities at great cost to the American taxpayer (and to the great benefit of the ranching and livestock industries).
It was not an auspicious debut. Jewell did not directly answer the question posed to her. And the affirmative statement she did make about the herds was unsupported by key facts revealed in June in a report by the National Academy of Sciences that was sharply critical of Bureau of Land Management's practices and policies toward the horses. She offered a series of platitudes—e.g. "So we are working on it. And we are going to work on it"—while wild horses are being sold to slaughter in contravention of federal law and policy. Time is of the essence here but there was no hint of urgency in the Secretary's remarks.
There are two explanations for the Secretary's performance and neither can be seen as encouraging for wild horse advocates (or fans of good governance in general, for that matter). The first is that, despite her extensive scientific background, Jewell does not grasp the essence of the scientific criticism the NAS has offered about the BLM's work. And the second is that she does grasp the extent of the problem the NAS identified—she has done her homework—but that she has neither the political desire nor the bureaucratic will to implement the reforms the scientists suggest. Either way, from an Obama Administration official who talks a great deal about conservation and the environment, who says she is a friend to animals and no tool to corporate interests, it doesn't bode well for the federally-protected horses.
The National Academy of Sciences Report
It has been exactly five months since the National Academy of Sciences released its long-awaited report titled "Using Science to Improve the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program." In it, some of the nation's leading scientists were direct and unambiguous about the failures of the BLM to administer the horses: "The Wild Horse and Burro Program has not used scientifically rigorous methods to estimate the population sizes of horses and burros, to model the effects of management actions on the animals, or to assess the availability and use of forage on range lands," the scientists concluded.
In other words, after years of speculation and debate, the NAS concluded that the BLM was using both bad math and faulty science to justify one of its most controversial (and expensive) wild horse management practices. Wild horse advocates have long argued, for example, that the herds don't have nearly the negative impact on range lands that cattle and sheep do. Nor, advocates have long claimed, has the BLM accurately counted the number of wild horses on public lands or properly evaluated ways in which more horses can safely be kept there.
The NAS Report in June did not prove these allegations to be true. But at the very least it cast serious doubt on the arguments the BLM (and the ranching and livestock industries) have made in support of the current practices. It raises profound questions, in other words, about whether the advocates are right about the BLM and the need for its overhaul. Also relevant to Thursday's public comments by Jewell was this part of the NAS Report that explained what the BLM was doing wrong and how federal officials could remedy the problem:
Promising fertility-control methods are available to help limit this population growth, however. In addition, science-based methods exist for improving population estimates, predicting the effects of management practices in order to maintain genetically diverse, healthy populations, and estimating the productivity of rangelands. Greater transparency in how science-based methods are used to inform management decisions may help increase public confidence in the Wild Horse and Burro Program.
Since June, I have repeatedly asked Secretary Jewell, through her spokeswoman, to respond to the National Academy's work. I have asked the secretary, again through a spokeswoman, to respond more generally to the plight of the nation's wild horses as they become more and more vulnerable to mistreatment or slaughter. Over and over again those requests have been declined. I was told to be patient, that the secretary was working through the NAS Report, and that the time would come when there would be a substantive response. Evidently, that time has come.
July On Capitol Hill
To put into better perspective last week's comments by Secretary Jewell, I need to briefly digress. First, Secretary Jewell said she wanted to wait for the results of the NAS Report before commenting upon the plight of the wild horses. Then, on July 17th, she appeared at a hearing on Capitol Hill just a few weeks after the NAS Report was issued. At the time, she had an exchange with Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona with a long history of sense and sensibility toward the nation's wild horses. He framed his question to her the following way:
Madame Secretary, the Wild Horse and Burro program managed by BLM has been a persistent source of criticism, controversy, and I believe in need of serious reform and an overhaul. And much of that criticism that has been leveled at the program was reaffirmed by an independent review by the National Academy of Sciences.And so in light of that independent review, do you see a need to restructure the program in order to both save money and, just as importantly, guarantee humane treatment of Wild Horses and Burros in that program?
RENO, Nev. — The Reporters Committee on Freedom of the Press says the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is using safety concerns as an excuse to limit media access to wild horse roundups across the West in violation of the First Amendment.
The National Press Photographers Association and more than a dozen newspaper companies joined the committee in a friend-of-the-court brief filed in the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals late Monday to back an advocacy group waging a series of legal battles over mustang roundups in Nevada.
Horseback Magazine photographer Laura Leigh and others “have a right to see what happens" during the roundups, the media groups said, urging the court to be “highly skeptical of assertions by the BLM that restrictions placed on media access were done for administrative convenience and/or to satisfy safety concerns."
“People in an open society do not demand infallibility from their institutions, but it is difficult for them to accept what they are prohibited from observing," they said.
The 9th Circuit sent the case brought by Leigh’s advocacy group, Wild Horse Education, back to U.S. Judge Larry Hicks in Reno last year to determine if the BLM limits are constitutional.
Hicks ruled in 2011 that a balancing of the interests of the agency and public access to a roundup in Nevada didn’t warrant granting an injunction to block the gathers. But a three-judge panel of the appellate court ruled he failed to determine whether those restrictions violated First Amendment protections.
“When the government announces it is excluding the press for reasons such as administrative convenience, preservation of evidence, or protection of reporters’ safety, its real motive may be to prevent the gathering of information about government abuses or incompetence," Appellate Judge Milan Smith Jr. wrote in the 18-page opinion in February 2012.
BLM spokesman Tom Gorey said Tuesday that the agency had no comment on the latest filing.
Agency officials testified at a hearing earlier this year that they do their best to provide public access to the roundups and temporary holding of the animals and denied Leigh’s claims she was singled out to be kept away from the mustangs.
The National Press Club, Nevada Press Association, Reno-Gazette Journal, The Seattle Times Company, the Las Vegas-Review Journal’s owner Stephens Media and others joined in the new brief arguing that journalists routinely face far more
dangerous assignments, especially at war. They say reporters should have the same unrestricted access to public rangeland as they do to battlefields.
BLM’s concerns are “speculative at best and at worst are overly broad and ambiguous, often arbitrarily and capriciously chilling visual journalists’ ability to cover matters of public concern," they said.
“If they are willing to assume such risks in a warzone, it should certainly be considered that such safety concerns by the government are nothing but mere pretext when it comes to horse gathers ... BLM land is more akin to an open park than a battlefield, and a horse gather is less dangerous than open combat or fires, floods, explosions and other calamities where safety concerns are at stake."
Hicks said during a hearing earlier this year that he recognizes it’s an issue that “strikes deeply in people’s emotions and interests."
Source: Bend Bulletin by Scott Sonner
ARLINGTON, Va. —Speaking before the Bureau of Land Management’s National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board, Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly addressed the growing problem of feral horses on the Navajo Nation. This meeting discussed how the advisory board provides recommendations to the BLM as it carries out its responsibilities under the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act.
The law mandates the protection, management and control of these free-roaming animals in a manner that ensures healthy herds at levels consistent with the land’s capacity to support them.
In his remarks, President Shelly underscored the financial burden feral horses present and the increasing drain on the Navajo Nation’s finances and natural resources, and risks damaging valuable trust assets. The Navajo Nation is currently spending more than $200,000 a year to address the damage these horses cause. The Navajo Nation Department of Agriculture estimates the feral horse population at 75,000 and growing.
“The potential damage and cost of addressing this problem coupled with the suffering the animals experience has brought the Navajo Nation to ask you to find a solution to feral horses. These horses are not the iconic wild horses that many think symbolize the West. These feral horses are once domesticated animals that have been set free by owners who can no longer afford their upkeep,” President Shelly added.
In his discussions with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Humane Society and the American Wild Horse Sanctuary, President Shelly expressed his concern as a horse owner about the suffering that these animals are experiencing. “Horses are sacred and special to the Navajo people and have had a central place in Navajo culture going back to our creation stories. I hate to see horses in pain; we need to do something about this needless suffering. The federal government must to live up to its responsibilities,” President Shelly said.
Feral horses are one of the biggest concerns facing Navajo communities. Overpopulation contributes to rangeland depletion, water source damage through feces and urine contamination, death and property destruction due to highway accidents, competition for natural resources used by domestic livestock and people, pain and suffering of feral horses due to starvation, dehydration and predation.
Source: Navajo Division of Natural Resources
Raul Grijalva Will Headline Sept. 4 Press Conference at BLM Horse Facility Near Reno to Call for Wild Horse & Burro Management Reforms
Arizona Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva
Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, the ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation, will tour and hold a press conference on Wednesday, Sept. 4, at the Palomino Valley National Adoption Center to discuss the current state and future of the Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) Wild Horse and Burro Program.
Under the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971, the BLM is responsible for managing and preserving wild horses and burros around the country. Over the past few decades, BLM has used a number of controversial management techniques to meet herd quotas required by the law. Approximately 39,000 wild horses and burros roam land managed by the BLM and another 40,000 more are held in BLM facilities like Palomino Valley – the largest holding facility managed by the federal government.
The BLM program currently prioritizes roundups over alternatives that reduce the need for expensive stockpiling. More than half of BLM’s wild horse management budget is spent to provide care for animals in long-term holding facilities.
The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) recently released‘Using Science to Improve the BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program: A Way Forward,’which found that federal efforts waste taxpayer money and need major reforms. You can read the full report at
“I’ve been asking for changes for years, and NAS has confirmed that we can save taxpayer money and horses’ lives at the same time by improving this program,” Grijalva said. “We have the information we need. Now it’s time to do something with it.”Congressman Grijalva will be joined by Neda DeMayo, CEO of Return to Freedom American Wild Horse Sanctuary, and Emmy-nominated actress and advocate Wendie Malick. Ahead of the Sept. 9 meeting of the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board in Washington DC, the speakers will discuss the need to implement the findings of the NAS study and the future of the Restore Our American Mustangs (ROAM) Act.
The National Wild Horse and Burro Center at Palomino Valley
The public is invited to join the Wild Horse and Burro Program to brainstorm possible strategies for the increased comfort of wild horses and burros at the BLM's Palomino Valley National Wild Horse and Burro Center preparation and adoption facility. The workshop will be held in Reno, Nev., and as a webinar.
Date: August 6, 2013
Time: 5:30 - 9:00 p.m. PST
Location: Reno City Council Chamber
Address: 1 East First Street, Reno, Nev. 89501
Webinar link: https://www2.gotomeeting.com/register/412191850
>>.Click here for the Agenda
>> Click here for the Workshop Materials
Tours of the Palomino Valley Center facility will be conducted on Aug. 6, prior to the workshop from 2-4 p.m. for 30 minutes starting on the half hour. For more information, including directions, click here.
Rains Natural Meats hopes to turn their facility into a horse slaughterhouse.
GALLATIN, Mo. — A Daviess County man who wants to begin slaughtering and processing horse meat awaits a court hearing today could further delay his business attempt. David Rains has already modified the plant just east of Gallatin, Mo., to accept horses rather than the beef, pork, elk, bison and venison that Rains Natural Meats previously processed. Mr. Rains offered the News-Press an exclusive tour of the facility earlier this week.
The federal hearing in Albuquerque, N.M., pertains to a lawsuit filed by The Humane Society of the United States and other groups against the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with Rains as one of the parties. The suit alleges that environmental reviews were not conducted regarding a New Mexico-issued permit to slaughter horses. The society is leading efforts to prevent a resumption to horse slaughtering that was banned by Congress seven years ago.
Rains Natural Meats first opened in 1998 to process antibiotic- and hormone-free organic products, but closed last year after Mr. Rains’ brother, Steve, underwent knee replacements. A bid to sell the business ended once prospects opened for a joint venture. “Then we made connections with the horse people,” he said, referring to a partnership with Chevaline, a Wyoming equine firm that would provide marketing assistance. “If you do horses, you can’t do anything else.”
Feral horses rounded up from Western states would supply the business. Mr. Rains said the switch has caused him to have pigs butchered elsewhere. Department regulations also restrict horse meat from being stored in the same freezer with other meat products, he said.
Rather than using a captive bolt-stunning gun before slaughter, Mr. Rains said he would use .410- caliber slugs as the primary
means to kill the horses — with .22-caliber Magnum cartridges as a secondary method. Once placed into a padded chute, Mr. Rains said a light would switch on to blind the horse in a USDA-recommended measure. All holding pens have been covered in plywood to reduce the odds of horses escaping through a gate.
The number of horses the facility could handle is undetermined. “We honest to goodness don’t know,” Mr. Rains said. “We could maybe do 10 a day. Right now we’re thinking 30 a week.” For now, the company remains idle, due to the inability to cross species in its meat processing. Depending on developments, it’s conceivable that Rains Natural Meats could choose a return to its previous processing.
“I’ve had people lined up to work,” he said. “All I’ve got to do is call them. The market’s there ... We’ve got to survive on a niche.” The horse meat would be available to domestic and international markets for pet and human food. Assisting regional and global hunger relief programs is another motivation.
“We actually have zoos that are interested in doing samples,” Mr. Rains said.
Horsemeat, he said, is higher in protein, lower in fat and higher in good Omega-3 fatty acids. Some Americans will choose to eat horse meat, he added, although its consumption is more widespread in Europe and Asia.
A Missouri Department of Natural Resources lagoon permit must also be renewed, in line with the procedures that the New
Mexico plant and another in Iowa must follow. Every horse would be tested for drug residue at a University of Missouri lab and USDA officials also would perform random testing for animal pharmaceuticals, with the rejections discarded.
The horses would come through certified buyers of the International Equine Business Association. The Native American tribes of Navajo, Hopi and Yakama also have joined the lawsuit in hopes of resolving excessive feral horse populations on their lands in New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.
Processing horse meat could start in two weeks, pending the government actions, Mr. Rains said. Amanda Good, the Humane Society’s Missouri director, said there are several reasons the organization opposes horse slaughtering. “Missouri can expect protests, negative press and trucks full of suffering horses being hauled into our state, risking accidents and injuries to motorists on our highways,” she said of one example.
The overheated debate between the federal government and animal advocates over the removal of wild mustangs from the Western range ticked a few degrees higher after the Bureau of Land Management announced plans to take fewer horses from the land this summer.
Even though its holding capacity for captured wild horses has nearly reached its limit at 50,000 animals nationwide, the agency said last week that it would remove 1,300 horses in the coming months, many of which might otherwise die from lack of food and water.
Animal advocates say 1,300 horses is still too many, and question the BLM’s rationale for the removals.
Nine of the BLM's 16 summer roundups will be conducted in Nevada, home to roughly half of the estimated 37,000 free-roaming wild horses and burros in the West. The agency plans to remove 855 wild horses and burros in Nevada, 140 in
Oregon, 105 in Arizona, 65 in New Mexico, 50 in Colorado and 25 in Idaho, the agency said in a news release.
On Tuesday, the agency said it would relocate 50 wild horses threatened by drought from an area two hours north of Las Vegas. BLM officials said “it is anticipated that as an act of mercy, some animals with a poor prognosis for survival may need to be humanely euthanized to end their suffering.”
“The drought conditons are so severe we’re going to see die-offs,” BLM spokesman Tom Gorey told the Los Angeles Times.
The BLM has been closely monitoring drought conditions and since early July has been supplementing the natural water seeps, filling tubs and troughs with water and providing hay to the horses. Unfortunately, these animals are extremely skittish and will not drink from the man-made containers. Even with the extra water, the seeps do not provide enough water to sustain them, Gorney said.
“It’s contrary to the cliche -- we’re bringing the water to the horse, but the animals still won’t drink it,” he told The Times. “Horses will die. It’s not going to be pretty.”
The BLM has been under fire for what many have called its failing policies toward wild horses, who have been blamed for range damage despite the fact that their numbers are heavily overshadowed by grazing domestic cattle. An independent scientific review of the agency’s horse roundups, released in May, recommended that the government invest in widespread fertility control of the mustangs and let nature cull any excess herds instead of spending millions to house them in overflowing holding pens.
The 14-member panel assembled by the National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council and Management concluded BLM's removal of nearly 100,000 horses from the Western range over the last decade is probably having the opposite effect of its intention to ease ecological damage and reduce overpopulated herds.
In June, 30 member os the House of Representatives urged new U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to reform the government's wild horse management program and its spiraling budget, which is dominated by the high cost of corralling and
removing the animals from the range.
For the 2013 fiscal year, which ends in September, the BLM plans to remove 4,800 mustangs from the range, compared with 8,255 in the last fiscal year, Gorey said, adding that the reduction is due to overstocked corrals.
In a statement, the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign coalition criticized the BLM's plans. "The BLM is galloping ahead with rounding up more wild horses, despite the high cost to taxpayers and animals as well as the findings of an independent scientific review, which recommends against continued roundups," said coalition spokeswoman Suzanne Roy. "The agency still has not gotten the message that the removal of wild horses from our Western public lands is inhumane, unsustainable, unscientific, and must come to an end.”
Six of the Nevada roundups will employ contract helicopters to drive the animals to pens, while the rest of the operations will use bait and water to trap them in corrals.
Sally Summers, founder of the Reno-based group Horse Power, which has called for a stop to the capturing of horses and burros, said the BLM’s planned areas for its water traps is the same area that is at the center of a lawsuit by advocates for better monitoring access of helicopter roundups.
“They’re doing water traps because they knew we won’t have access to monitor what they’re doing,” Summers told The Times. “Do they make sure there is enough water in those traps? Do they check them enough times a day to collect horses out in the middle of the heat? We won’t know, because they won’t let us near those traps to watch their tactics.” She added: "The BLM is tired of people picking it apart. They want to do what they do in secrecy.”
Gorey lashed back at critics. “The opponents of our horse gathers face a daunting question of ethics,” he told The Times. "On one hand, they imply that if Mother Nature kills off the horses from thirst or starvation, that’s OK. But if we intervene to save these horses, that’s unacceptable.”
“Where is the reasoning in that argument. I don’t see it.”
Source: KVOA News, by Sam Salzwedel
CATALINA, Arizona - A rescue group is trying to find homes for 17 burros they recently adopted from an auction. Jo DiGennaro offered her property in Catalina for 7 of the animals. "I could see myself keeping a few of them," she said. "It would be hard to
let them go, but as long as they go to good homes, it will be fine."
Julianne French is helping Equine Voices and has been fighting for the burros in the wild. "These animals are part of our history. They are our connection with our past," she said. "They're a symbol of the West. The West was built on the backs of these burros."The animals were probably rounded up near Ajo on Bureau of Land Management land, according to French.
That practice has recently been criticized by Southern Arizona Congressman Raul Grijalva. On June 20, he wrote a letter, cosigned by 30 members of congress, to the new Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell.
"BLM has grossly underutilized proven, cost-effective and humane alternatives, such as fertility control," the letter stated. "This is a solvable problem." Most of BLM's budget for the Wild Horse and Burro Program is spent holding the animals. There are more wild horses and burros in captivity than in the wild, according to the letter.
A recent report by the National Academy of Sciences stated BLM spent more money than necessary because "the number of animals processed through holding facilities is probably increased by management." The BLM has a web page to explain facts and myths of their program. It states burros populations can double every 4 years without proper management, and they have used some fertility control.
Equine Voices needs help with veterinary bills and feeding the animals they rescued.
Source: L.A Times by John M. Glionna
ANTELOPE VALLEY, Nev. – Just after dawn, a dozen mustangs
stampede across the high desert, harassed by a white helicopter that dips and swoops like a relentless insect. Frightened stallions lead a tightknit family band, including two wild-eyed foals that struggle to keep up.
Three animal activists watch through long-range camera lenses as wranglers hired by the federal Bureau of Land Management help drive the animals into a camouflaged corral. The private-contract pilot is paid $500 for each captured horse, dead or alive.
After a 10-mile run, one band of horses storms past the corral, prolonging the chase. While most of the horses enter the trap, a few break for open territory, the chopper in pursuit.
PHOTOS: Wild horse roundup
Few escape. The roundup corrals 180 mustangs, often employing a tactic that sets the species up to betray itself: A wrangler holds the reins of a tame horse at the mouth of the trap. As the mustangs draw close, the worker releases the animal — known as a Judas horse — which dashes into the corral, followed instinctively by the others.
Suddenly, out on the range, a single cocoa-colored mare stops in its tracks. Breathless and sweating, the animal stands its ground — whether in defiance or because it is simply too tired to go on — as the chopper hovers a few feet overhead, kicking up dust amid the thudding whir of the rotor blades.
Horse advocate Laura Leigh can take it no more.“It’s a horse in distress,” she calls out to several BLM minders nearby. “You’re supposed to break it off. Call off the pilot, please.” The BLM workers remain silent as the standoff drags on, until the horse finally moves slowly into captivity.
The decades-long debate over how to manage America’s wild horses has descended into an often-rancorous feud between animal advocates and state and federal authorities. BLM officials say the mustang population is out of control. Activists insist the agency has scapegoated an animal whose poise and dignity make it an apt symbol of the West.
The two sides disagree on just about everything: on how to stem the growth of mustang herds, whether domestic cattle or wild horses do more damage to range land and whether mustangs are a native or invasive species. They can’t even agree how many wild horses are left on the range.Bureau spokesman Tom Gorey calls the overheated battle the “natural-resource version of abortion.”
“There is no easy way out, no fast way to a solution, no quick turnaround,” he said. “The intensity brought by both sides makes everything harder.” This wasn’t the scenario envisioned when the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971 directed the BLM to maintain a “natural ecological balance” among horses, wildlife and cattle.
Critics say the bureau bends to the interests of ranchers who for generations have grazed their livestock on public lands leased for below-market cost. Though cattle often outnumber wild horses 50 to 1, ranchers blame mustangs for over-grazing the range. “I’ve always felt those mustangs didn’t get a fair break,” said Bob Edwards, a former BLM Wild Horse and Burro Program official.
Horse advocates say federal officials pay only lip service to outside concerns. “I have a dream that one day we can all work together to keep these wild horses on the range,” said Deniz Bolbol, spokeswoman for the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign. “But the BLM continually slams the door in our face.”
Officials counter that it’s the animal activists who are inflexible and often shrill. When the BLM proposed gelding more males, activists filed a lawsuit to stop the practice, saying it robbed stallions of their spirit. The agency says it does the best it can to protect Western range lands with diminishing resources.
Image: There are 179 “herd management areas” on about 31.6 million acres of public land. The areas aren’t fenced and horses and cattle often share public grazing land.
Each year the BLM rounds up thousands of mustangs in what critics call prolonged and often cruel chases that take place both during the frozen winter and extreme summer heat. Some state agencies do the same. Mustangs are trucked off to holding pens to be readied for adoption or sent to fenced-in Midwestern tracts — where ranchers are paid by the government to house the horses for the rest of their lives.
In 2012, holding costs of $42 million devoured mor than half the BLM’s $72-million budget for its horse and burro program, a financial outlay that has doubled since 2009.
The BLM estimates that 49,000 wild horses are held in government facilities, and that 31,500 remain on the range. Some activists say the number of free-roaming horses is half that.
A panel of scientists in June blasted the BLM bureau’s emphasis on round-ups as “expensive and unproductive.” The damning report called for more birth control — a vaccine for mares, chemical vasectomies for males — and urged the agency to improve how it estimates the horse population.
The study’s authors called on the agency to show greater transparency in how it operates. The report, made at the request of the bureau itself, was written by a 14-member panel of the National Academy of Science’s National Research Council.
This month, Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) sent a letter to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell -- co-signed by 29 other House members -- asking the BLM to follow up on the academy’s recommendations and halt its “unsustainable roundup-remove-and-stockpile approach to wild horse management.”
“We have the information we need,” Grijalva wrote. “Now it’s time to do something with it.”
Suzanne Roy, director of the Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, said the BLM must act now to release the wild mustangs held in captivity, instead of just ignoring the study’s conclusions.“We know the BLM program is scientifically unsound, fiscally reckless and extremely inhuman,” she said. “The NAS was clear: Business as usual must change.”
Gorey said the bureau was reviewing the recommendations in the report before developing an action plan. He said the study corroborated the BLM’s longtime assertion that unchecked mustang herds grow at a rate of 20% a year. The study also made clear that the bureau was not overestimating herd populations on the range, as activists have claimed, he said. “The accusation is that we have this conspiracy to lull the public to sleep while carrying out this horse extinction policy on the range,” he said. “The report makes clear that we’re undercounting horses, not overcounting. That myth was knocked down.”
Gorey added that the academy’s report also made clear that the bureau cannot just “let nature take care of horse numbers. That approach would not be popular with either Congress or the public,” he said. “What the study says is that you don’t sit back and let the excess horse population starve or dehydrate itself into oblivion,” Gorey said. “You do something about it.”
Although wild horses gathered from state lands or Native American reservations can be sold to so-called kill buyers and shipped to foreign slaughterhouses, mustangs on federal land are protected by law. They may not be sold to anyone who intends to have them killed. Activists say federal protections contain loopholes that still can lead to horse slaughter.
Federal officials are investigating whether the BLM knowingly sold 1,700 to a known kill buyer from Colorado, the latest of numerous accusations over the years that horses in the care of the federal government were being killed.
Mustangs adopted under federal programs are tracked by the BLM for only one year — allowing for such oversights, activists say. Others that fail three adoption efforts or are 10 years old or older are not tracked at all.
In Nevada, home to half the remaining wild horse herds, ranchers call mustang slaughter a humane solution to overpopulation. “If I was a horse and had the choice of dying of old age standing in some government corral or being harvested, I’d choose the latter,” said J.J. Goicoechea, the president of the Nevada Cattlemen’s Assn.
The market for horse meat might even grow. Although domestic horse slaughter was banned in 2006, prompting shipments to Mexico and Canada, the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Friday approved an application for a New Mexico facility to start killing horses. Applications from two other states are expected to be approved in the coming days as well.
“The way I see it, they’re for consumption,” says former kill buyer Bill Quinlan. ”They’re healthier than beef; no cholesterol.”