Killing Off an American Legacy
Updated: Feb 1, 2019
The Nevada Farm Bureau Federation and the Nevada Association of Counties—with strong ranching ties—have filed suit against the Department of Interior and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to destroy “excess” mustangs and wild burros*.
In the last decade alone, the BLM has removed 100,000 horses from the western range, but the agency is now struggling with budget constraints and capacity limitations at short- and long-term holding facilities. The plaintiffs claim that the still roaming horses are damaging public land and threatening private water rights, and they go so far as to say that wild horses that are “unadoptable” must be destroyed as opposed to being kept at the crowded ranches.
However, according to Anne Novak, executive director of the horse advocacy group Protect Mustangs, 1.75 million head of livestock grazing on public land far outnumber wild horses by more than 50-to-1 and cause most of the range damage. The ranching interests’ push-back on the BLM follows on the heels of more restrictions on grazing after a few years of drought and interest in selling water to fracking companies.
Many mustang advocacy groups, including the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign (AWHPC), believe the “wild horse overpopulation” is a “myth propagated by the BLM and the livestock industry.” AWHPC studied how the government allocated forage in 50 herd management areas where roundups occurred in the past few years. The analysis found 82.5 percent was allocated to livestock; 17.5 percent to wild horses.
According to AWHPC:
Livestock grazing on federal lands is estimated to cost taxpayers from $500 million to over $1 billion annually for total direct and indirect costs…[with] the grazing rates at the lowest rate allowable under federal law, $1.35 per [animal unit month] AUM…
That rate pales in comparison to the average monthly lease rate of $16.80 per head on private lands, according to the 2012 Congressional Research Service Report.
Youths’ Equine Alliance (YEA!), led by 12-year-old Robin Warren of Las Vegas, Nevada, is also fighting back to protect this American legacy. The group has been rallying to educate the public and save wild horses from helicopter round-ups, crowded holding sites where horses routinely die, and the threat of rendering plants. The group has successfully facilitated the pledged adoptions of 65 wild horses (as of mid-March), including Robin’s own mustang, Rocky. YEA! has inspired over 180,000 supporters to take action, including petition signing, on behalf of the animals.
According to the BLM, almost 50,000 wild horses now live in captivity, far exceeding the 32,000 left on the range. The BLM has been tasked with their protection. According to the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971:
Congress finds and declares that wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; that they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people; and that these horses and burros are fast disappearing from the American scene. It is the policy of Congress that wild free-roaming horses and burros shall be protected from capture, branding, harassment, or death; and to accomplish this they are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands.
According to Public Policy Polling, 72 percent of American support protecting wild horses. In a poll conducted by Hart Research Associates, only 29 percent supported public lands being available for livestock grazing.
However, the Burns Amendment to the same Act, directs the Bureau to sell excess horses or burros that have “been offered unsuccessfully for adoption at least 3 times” to any willing buyer, including slaughter houses. The wild horses are sold to slaughterhouses in Mexico and Canada for a little as $10 each. If the lawsuit ultimately favors the plaintiffs, the 50,000 already rounded up are at risk of being deemed “excess” and subject to destruction, per that same law.
The issue is not unique to Nevada and, as a federal suit, the implications will be widespread, affecting the 11 western states with mustang and burro herds and holding facilities, including Utah. Utah has 22 free-roaming herds and two holding facilities at Delta and Gunnison.
The horses and burros are part of our national landscape and heritage. Our tax dollars are used toward them via the BLM, for good or bad. We’re all invested on some level and should have a voice in this matter. For the sake of the herds, let your voice be heard.
*First published in Pets in the City Magazine, April 2014