Environmental travesties are on the rise, many obscured by the COVID-19 pandemic. One of the biggest ones will soon be taken up by Congress.
In its long-overdue report to Congress, the Bureau of Land Management proposes capturing and removing 220,000 wild horses and burros over 10 years to achieve its unsupported, arbitrary “appropriate management level” of 26,690 — a near-extinction population level.
It will cost American taxpayers $1 billion to expel these animals from the dedicated rangelands where they currently live at no cost to taxpayers. Thousands of wild mares could be subjected to ovariectomy, a discredited, brutal form of sterilization. In the end, hundreds of thousands of once-wild animals will languish in crowded holding pens — and taxpayers will be footing the bill.
Wild horses are federally protected animals. The 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act established their ranges as dedicated habitat to be “managed principally ” for their welfare. Flouting this law, the BLM has removed wild equids from nearly half of their designated 52 million acres. Now, government machinery is accelerating to remove most of the rest.
The BLM plans to wipe out three herd management areas in Wyoming’s famed Checkerboard and sterilize an entire herd in a fourth — “zeroing out” 2.5 million acres of their habitat for continual use by privately owned livestock.
In Nevada, the BLM intends to eliminate six herds in the Caliente Complex, imprisoning 1,700 wild horses at taxpayer expense. They will also take 1,800 wild horses from Oregon’s Barren Valley, proposing sterilization as “management,” killing off the “wild” in these wild horses.
Seventy-three percent of Arizona’s Black Mountain herd (1,727 wild burros) are slated to be removed despite a finding by the National Academy of Sciences that this could “jeopardize the genetic health of the whole population.” Even Montana’s famed Pryor Mountain herd could be cut in half, threatening the horses’ genetic survival.
Millions of privately owned cattle will remain on federal rangelands, their taxpayer-subsidized grazing often expanded after wild equids are ejected from the land.
The BLM’s insidious plan will reduce America’s wild equid population to roughly the level estimated in 1971, when Congress declared them “fast disappearing from the West” and acted unanimously to protect these heritage animals from extinction. The plan is based on a staggering compilation of misinformation and greed. Acting BLM Director William Perry Pendley, who opposes the concept of public lands and has no background in range management, claims wild horses are an “existential threat.”
Perhaps they are — but only to his agenda. This is just the latest sound bite in a long-conducted public relations campaign against wild horses. Wild horse bashing is a smokescreen for what the BLM wants to hide — the commercial takeover of public lands. Subsidized livestock already outnumber wild horses and burros by over 37 to 1, yet livestock overgrazing is a top cause of damage to federal rangelands. Another group includes the extractive industries, which the administration is promoting at an unprecedented rate. Wild horses and burros are the canaries in this “coal mine” of commercial exploitation.
The benefits of wild equids to the land are as powerful as they are unsung. They are walking fertilizers. They clear up fire-prone vegetation. Burros dig new water sources for other wildlife. At Skydog Sanctuary, a large rescue in central Oregon, new springs and vegetation nurseries emerged and pastures revived after several years of wild horse and burro presence on what had been overgrazed land. Other nonprofit groups have noticed a similar rebirth after introducing mustangs and burros.
Better choices are at hand. The vast majority of people in the United States support humane approaches to population management. Over 100 animal and equine advocacy groups propose rehoming captive wild horses and burros to zeroed-out rangelands; engaging partnerships to carry out PZP fertility control darting, wild horse monitoring, and range improvements; protecting predators; establishing more livestock-free ranges; and raising population targets to genetically sustainable levels.
Replacing the harmful cycle of wild equid roundup and livestock overgrazing with initiatives to restore broken lands is a key climate action measure. The BLM’s plan, tucked in the FY20 appropriations package, is fiscally irresponsible and environmentally disastrous. Not one more dollar should be wasted on this latest scheme to destroy a national treasure.
Ginger Kathrens, an Emmy award-winning filmmaker who has documented wild horses and burros in the wild for over two decades, is the founder and director of the Cloud Foundation. Charlotte Roe, a retired diplomat and wild horse and burro guardian, heads the Wild Equid League of Colorado.