“The 88,000 wild horses and burros are dwarfed in the millions by cattle and sheep…”
William Perry Pendley, acting chief of the Bureau of Land Management, is warning of a fearsome herd. Wild horses and burros, he says, are an “existential threat,” and the “havoc and destruction” they wreak is the biggest problem facing federal public lands.
Curiously absent from Pendley’s apocalyptic vision is the fact that wild horses and burros don’t exist on 90% of BLM land. Yet public lands continue to deteriorate. His rant against wild equines seeks to deflect public attention from the real forces ravaging America’s lands: livestock overgrazing, intensive oil and gas drilling, mining, deforestation, and the rollback of federal protections for publicly owned lands. It also aims to build congressional support for funding the agency’s new, draconian management plan.
The Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, passed unanimously by Congress in 1971, states these “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West” shall be protected “in the areas where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of public lands.” From the start, private interests set out to undermine the intent and terms of the Act.
The BLM reduced wild equid habitat from the originally designated 53 million acres to the present 26 million. The 339 free-roaming herds designated for protection shrunk to 179. Most herds are now managed below the level required for genetic sustainability. The 88,000 wild horses and burros are dwarfed in the millions by cattle and sheep.
Now the BLM has proposed a bold extinction agenda. Championed by Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, the National Cattlemen’s Association, and corporate allies as well as two animal welfare bureaucracies, HSUS and ASPCA, the new management proposal would remove up to 130,000 mustangs and burros — far more than the present population — to reduce wild equid herds to 26,000, or roughly 1,000 acres per wild horse or burro. The number mirrors that of 1971, when Congress recognized these iconic animals were “fast disappearing from the Western landscape.”
Supporters of this scheme call it a “non-lethal” way to address overpopulation and avoid slaughter. This is wishful thinking. It would accelerate helicopter roundups and removals, a practice that National Academy of Sciences found “expensive, unproductive” and not in the public interest. Still, the BLM spends the majority of its budget —$56 million in FY 2018 — to remove tens of thousands of wild horses and burros and incarcerate them in grim, costly holding facilities.
The BLM plan refers to “humane” methods of “population suppression,” but its preferred method is cruel and life-threatening. Despite numerous court challenges and withdrawn university support, the BLM prioritizes sterilization of captured wild mares using ovariectomy via colpotomy in a nonsterile environment. The archaic procedure involves inserting a rod and chain into a mare’s vagina to crush and tear out her ovaries. The NAS warned against using it on wild horses due to risks of prolonged bleeding and infection.
Dozens of animal welfare and wild horse advocacy groups oppose the new management plan. More than 100 organizations united behind a statement of principles and alternative solutions for on-range, cost-effective management of America’s wild equines that includes PZP fertility control, rehoming to closed out herd areas, and protection of natural predators.
The anti-wild horse lobbies won two rounds, but the battle persists. Without debate, the House and Senate Appropriations committees approved financing the BLM’s new plan with $6 million and $35 million, respectively. The full Senate, then a House-Senate Conference, will soon take it up. Concerned citizens are urging rejection of this expanded mismanagement plan and opening a conversation about real reform.
Why do wild horses and burros matter? They are protected wildlife, and their age-old presence on the land helps balance ecosystems and reduce dry, fire-prone vegetation. Their beauty and inspiration draw resources to struggling rural communities.
It’s no accident that the BLM’s chief of land management has advocated selling off our federal land for ideological reasons. Scapegoating free-roaming equines instead of fixing the real causes of rangeland degradation is foolish. We can choose a barren, climate-scorched Western landscape — or a drive to restore the diversity and health of America’s wild lands. Only those contributing to the problem should fear the wild horse.