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A federal advisory committee recommends selling or killing thousands of wild horses to protect Western rangelands from overgrazing.
The National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board recommended that those wild horses and burros rounded up for range management and later deemed unadoptable be sold “without limitation” or “destroyed in the most humane manner possible.”
Friday’s vote after a tour of trampled and denuded Nevada grassland puts a controversial exclamation point on a brewing debate about how to handle some 70,000 horses and burros roaming and breeding on federal lands.
Mustang advocates responded with thousands of angry emails, board members say, though the recommendation is unlikely to lead to horse killings anytime soon.
Phoenix wild-horse enthusiast Michele Anderson was aghast at the committee’s recommendation to sell horses “without limitation.”
“That means to kill-buyers who can truck them to Canada or Mexico for slaughter, which is horrific,” she said in a telephone interview.
BLM officials don’t take a stand
The advisory board is appointed by the secretaries of the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture. The board recommends action to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, but does not make policy.
Officials with BLM’s horse program on Monday said they had not taken a position, and would respond to the recommendation at the board’s spring meeting.
The program spends the bulk of its money — $49 million of last year’s $77 million federal appropriation — to feed and care for horses removed from the range. The BLM is holding more than 45,000 captured horses and burros.
Of those, 576 horses and 62 burros were held in Arizona as of August, in federal corrals at Florence.
“They’re dying of old age in captivity,” said board member Robert Cole, an Idaho veterinarian. “That’s not fair, either.”
Even if BLM agreed to sell or euthanize the animals, it would have to work within a congressional budget amendment prohibiting funds for sales of horse that could go to slaughter.
Cole acknowledged that the recommendation may not do more than alert Congress that something has to change. Captive horses and burros are consuming a program that should place its emphasis on managing the animals that remain in the wild, he said.
“We really didn’t think people understood how big a disaster was in the making,” he said.
“This is a way to get their attention.”
Does government inflate horse count?
The BLM’s most recent survey, before this spring’s foaling season, included 67,000 horses. The agency says the herds grow at up to 20 percent a year, sometimes doubling in five years.
But Anderson, the horse advocate, said she believes the government inflates its counts of horses on the public range to justify removing them and appease cattle ranchers whose cows are in competition for water and forage. The government sometimes reports impossibly high year-to-year increases for individual herds, she said.
She suggests removing cattle from the areas where horses and burros roam.
“In my opinion there is no overpopulation of horses and burros,” she said. “I think wild horses and burros should be left alone in the wild.”
The nine-member board includes veterinarians and representatives of the public, the livestock industry, wildlife managers and horse advocates.
Horse advocate and documentary filmmaker Ginger Kathrens cast the only vote against the recommendation.
“Yes, we saw damaged rangelands” in Nevada, Kathrens said. “The easy scapegoat has always been wild horses. But wild horses live on just a fraction of the lands that BLM manages and a fraction of the land that livestock graze on.”
Most range degradation is caused by livestock, she said, and even the weedy grounds that the committee saw on its field trip were first battered by sheep and cattle.
Rather than dooming captive horses and then rounding up more, Kathrens suggested darting horses with vaccines that prevent pregnancy. She and other certified volunteers have helped do this on some herds, though BLM officials have argued it is not practical as a nationwide solution in rugged country.
“There’s certainly methods other than rounding them up and killing them,” said Kathrens, whose Cloud Foundation is named after a Montana mustang whose life she documented in a popular film for a PBS.
Cole, the Idaho veterinarian who supported the measure, said birth control can only stabilize wild herds; he believes it’s necessary to radically reduce them.
The BLM has set the appropriate horse and burro population at about 26,000 across the West, but the existing numbers may be triple that, he said.
The horse ranges that the committee toured between Ely and Elko, Nevada, contained only invasive cheatgrass and brush even seven years after land managers had removed livestock, Cole said.
“After we looked at all that we said the time has gone when we can do nothing,” he said. “This is turning into an ecological disaster.”
The BLM offers horses for adoption, though it does little to reduce the captive population. Last year Americans adopted 2,331 wild horses and 300 burros.
Cole said he has received angry emails from as far away as the Netherlands telling him to turn the horses loose.
“Where do you live?” he asked his critics rhetorically. “How many would you like to have in your yard?”