Controversy over the Bureau of Land Management's roundups of wild horses and burros ranging over 10 Western states is coming to a head, with ranchers, horse advocates and even the government acknowledging that the program is heading toward crisis.
Both critics and supporters of the roundups agree on one thing: the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program is “out of control” and heading for crisis. With adoption rates falling, its cost has doubled in a decade to $78 million this year. Even the government acknowledges “the current path is not sustainable for the animals, the environment or the taxpayer.”
“The roundups are devastating for the wild horses, being terrorized by helicopters and stampeded for miles,” said Suzanne Roy, director of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, one of several groups fighting the roundup program. “It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t work. It costs taxpayers money. It costs horses their freedom, sometimes their lives. It’s insanity.”
The BLM currently devotes only 1.5 percent of its wild horse budget to “population suppression,” such as treating female horses with the contraceptive PZP. But the agency says PZP works for only about one year after it’s injected and “has not been as effective as we had hoped.” So most of the program’s budget goes to rounding up and permanently housing horses and burros, which are kept in separate facilities.
Witnessing the roundups
The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 states that wild horses and burros “shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death,” but activists say the BLM program subjects them to that very treatment. “It’s my observation that the government continually violates the provision of the act that requires humane handling of these animals,” said Laura Leigh of the advocacy group Wild Horse Education. Leigh has taken BLM to court four times and has won two temporary restraining orders in lawsuits she has filed against the roundups. “I feel that removing wild horses by helicopter stampede is inherently inhumane.” Leigh says she has spent about 500 days observing roundups, living out of her truck, documenting injuries and even deaths with her cameras. One of Leigh’s videos has been seen more than 2 million times on YouTube.
Criticism of roundups is not limited to wild horses. The BLM also annually removes "excess" wild burros from public lands, mainly in Arizona, Nevada and California. In this video, wild burro advocates document "aggressive" roundup practices. As with horse roundups, the BLM defends the operations as humane and says such incidents are isolated and contrary to guidelines.
“I’ve seen broken legs,” Leigh said, standing outside a BLM holding facility in northern Nevada. “I’ve seen legs ripped up by barbed wire. I’ve seen horses kicked in the head. I’ve seen animals dragged by the neck with a rope. I’ve seen a helicopter hit horses.”
But BLM records show the agency has considered slaughter as a way to solve the problem. In October 2012, the idea was floated again by BLM advisory board member Jim Stephenson at meeting in Salt Lake City: “The only real solution to this is to have a slaughter market,” he said.
In March, however, legislation known as the Safeguard American Food Exports (SAFE) Act was introduced in both the U.S. Senate and House. If approved and signed into law, it would prohibit the knowing sale or transport of all horses (wild or domestic) "for purposes of human consumption."
Edwards, the former BLM rangeland expert, said he thinks the days are numbered for wild horses in America. “I think what’s
going to happen in the long run is that the wild horses will eventually be removed from public lands, which I think is a tragedy,” he said.
Filmmaker Ginger Kathrens, who has produced documentaries about wild horses, said, “The BLM would like to see wild horses gone, because with no wild horses, end of problem...Wild horses will be managed to extinction.”
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