The Will of the American People Ignored
Forty years ago this week, the American people spoke with one voice on an issue that clearly touched the heart of the nation. The Wild Horse and Burro Act was signed into law, over the objections of the powerful cattle industry. Congress was flooded with more letters and telegrams about wild mustangs than for any other issue save the Vietnam War. They insisted that wild horses must be preserved on public lands. That demand became law.
But it is doubtful horse lovers are popping champagne corks to celebrate. The law, or what’s left of it, is a hollow farce, a piss-poor replica of what we thought we were getting, about as authentic as a gift-shop Jackalope.
The timing of the anniversary oozes irony. Forty years later, teams of mercenary horse hunters prowl Nevada‘s public lands. They are paid a bounty, about $350 per captured animal. The two principal contractors that do this work have raked in tens of millions from their friends in the Bureau of Land Management. And I do mean friends. Some of those awarded fat contracts formerly worked for the Department of the Interior.
Right now, in an area of Northern Nevada known as the Calico complex, wild horses are running in terror across some of the roughest terrain in the West. Calico was the site of the bloodiest mustang roundup in history. Two years ago, I was there for part of it. BLM ignored all warnings about conducting a huge roundup in the middle of winter. The contractors used helicopters to frighten the mustangs, running them for miles across snow-covered ground, their hooves smashing onto sharp volcanic rocks. Dozens died on the spot. Some pregnant mares aborted their young. Others died in holding pens. A few literally ran their feet off — their hooves were worn to bloody stumps, so they collapsed and died.
I have lost count of all the promises the BLM has made in the 25 years I have covered wild horses. But the pace of broken promises has accelerated in the past few years, since former Nevada BLM director Bob Abbey ascended to the job as national director. Every few months, it seems, Mr. Abbey issues a news release in which he swears that the program is turning a corner, that it will be more open, that he welcomes new ideas, even public-private partnerships, and on and on. But as soon as the microphones are off, it’s business as usual — more roundups, more horses stuck in pens on private ranches owned by BLM-connected pals. That is where they stay for the rest of their miserable lives.
BLM has done its best to keep the public far from the roundups, though they make a show of bringing in media crews for tightly controlled observation sessions. There’s a good reason. The roundups are a bloody business, and there is no getting around it. Hundreds of horses have been run to death, or died of thirst or stress, or suffered injuries during the traumatic helicopter assaults. Advocates have captured video snippets of chopper pilots who smack into individual mustangs from the air. I’ve seen the BLM’s hired guns kick burros in the head, just to get their attention. This week, on the same day Abbey promised to ask his contractors to be more careful about the mayhem they inflict on horses, a mustang advocate recorded video of a BLM contractor repeatedly jamming a cattle prod into a band of scared burros. A few feet away, one of the government’s observers watched but didn’t say a damned thing.
My friend Jerry Reynoldson, who has probably done more to help wild horses than anyone, stopped short of predicting that there won’t be any left in 40 years, but he describes the future as “dismal.”
“They promise this, they promise that, they offer partnerships, say they want new ideas, but it is always the same. Round up the horses and stick them in holding pens,” Reynoldson says. “In 2005, they paid $500,000 for a study about how to increase horse adoptions, then ignored it. They stack the deck with friends of the cattle industry every time there is a review, and their allies always say whatever is needed.”
As with everything in American life these days, might makes right. The beef industry wants the horses gone from public ranges, and BLM is happy to comply. “BLM knows they can just wear people down,” Reynoldson says. “Few people can stay on top of this, can stay angry all the time. People have other issues. … BLM knows that all but the most dedicated advocates will wear down eventually.”
BLM plays a lot of games with numbers. There might be 25,000 horses still in the wild. Maybe. According to the 40-year-old law, the herds are supposed to be preserved on the same lands they roamed when the law went into effect, but more than 22 million acres of mustang country are now mustang-free. Instead, the public land is used to support privately owned cattle. There are 50 times as many cattle as horses on the range, yet it’s the horses that are deemed a threat to the land. BLM has omitted the effects of long-term livestock grazing from its evaluations of range conditions.
A planned study by the National Academies of Science won’t help. The panel is already stacked with members whose ties to the cattle industry are easily documented. NAS will be out with a report that supports whatever BLM’s policy of the moment is, and that will be that. Those who hoped that Obama would be more sympathetic than his rootin’-tootin’ predecessor have been greatly disappointed. As with so many other issues, Obama has been completely absent.
Will we still have wild horses on public lands 40 years from now? Guess we should ask the cattle barons. Because in today’s America, might makes right. All hail the “free market.”
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