Mustangs face perilous future

July 22, 2008


Up close with a wild horse. © James Mayfield

Private livestock on US public lands outnumber wild horses by 200 to one. How can the government agency managing wild horses argue that a mustang population as low as 13,000 really poses a threat to the rangeland? Duane L. Burright looks at the question.

America once had a love affair with the wild horse. In the 1950s and 1960s Americans were outraged to discover that wild mustangs, a symbol of rugged individualism and freedom, were being removed from public lands and sent to slaughter.

It all started on a day in 1950 when a woman named Velma B. Johnston, who later became known as "Wild Horse Annie", was driving on a road in Nevada and noticed a truck dripping with blood.

The truck was hauling wild horses to slaughter. Johnston learned how badly wild horses were treated and became determined to make a difference. The result was a grassroots campaign which led to the unanimous passage of The Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971 (PDF).

More letters poured into Congress from people concerned about wild horses than on any other issue at that time, with the exception of the Vietnam War. The issue was one that concerned all Americans, with the wild horse very much a part of the fabric of the nation. The wild horse issue was popular and was discussed on radio talk shows and many other forums.

Perhaps the best example of America's reverence of the wild horse is Ford Motor Company's Mustang, which began production in 1964. Ford originally intended to theme the car after the famed P-51 Mustang fighter plane, but ultimately decided on the wild horse due to Americans identifying with them. The car, like its equine namesake, is something that will always be associated with our country.

The millions of people who wrote Congress asking them to protect the wild horses weren't seen as "horse huggers" or "animal rights" types. Mostly, they were seen as concerned Americans, as are those asking Congress to once again protect wild horses and end the horse slaughter trade in the US today.

When he signed the wild horse protection bill into law in 1971, President Richard Nixon said: "Wild horses and burros merit man's protection historically for they are a living link with the days of the conquistadors, through the heroic times of the western Indians and pioneers, to our own day when the tonic of wilderness seems all too scarce. More than that, they merit it as a matter of ecological right - as anyone knows who has ever stood awed at the indomitable spirit and sheer energy of a mustang running free."

It took Velma Johnston just over 20 years to realise her dream of federal protection for wild horses and burros, but unfortunately the bill has been weakened over time by policy and regulation changes. The final death-blow issued to the Wild Horse and Burro Protection Act came in the form of the "Burns Rider" in November of 2004.

Recently the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the agency charged with the oversight of wild horses and burros on public lands, has been actively pursuing removal of these horses.

The argument they use for this is typically, "range conditions are too poor to be able to sustain these horses", as seen in this recent article, "Drought bites, Nevada moves to muster 1700 horses".


© James Mayfield
Reading articles such as this give you the feeling that the BLM is like the good guy in the old American Western movie, riding in wearing his white hat to remove those horses from their rangelands for their own good.

An example of this is the BLM's plan to remove horses from the Pryor Mountains in Montana due to what they claim to be "poor range conditions". But just how poor are the range conditions in the Pryors? According to Ginger Kathrens, who chronicled the story of those horses in her well-known documentary, "Cloud: Wild Stallion of the Rockies", range conditions in the Pryors aren't bad at all.

Long-time residents of the area attest to the range being in the best condition they've seen (specifically item #10).

You might be asking yourself why the BLM is removing these wild horses? They certainly don't seem to be in harm's way given the range conditions.

The answer is simple: it's because of livestock interests who want the public lands to run their cattle) and sheep. These powerful interests see wild horses as pests competing for forage on the open range and are actively seeking to exterminate them.

According to this report on the American Herds blog site there are only about 13,000 wild horses on our public lands.

For the past few years, the BLM has claimed that around 33,000 wild horses roam the range, but this excerpt from the American Herds site indicates the BLM is not being entirely truthful about the wild horse population: "Despite the massive cleansing campaign over the last several years, BLM continues to report 33,000 wild horses and burros still roam public lands. However, independent analysis utilising BLM's own statistics and methods of annual population reports, removals and reproductive rates concluded the most likely wild populations still remaining is merely 13,500 wild horses and burros - 20,000 less than BLM reported."

Compare this to the more than six million head of livestock grazing on those same public lands. Those six million cattle only constitute 3% of our nation's beef supply and cost taxpayers over $130 million annually to manage.

This Government Accounting Office (GAO) report (PDF) states: "[The] BLM could not provide GAO with any information demonstrating that federal rangeland conditions have significantly improved because of wild horse removals.

It continued: "This lack of impact has occurred largely because BLM has not reduced authorised grazing by domestic livestock, which because of their vastly larger numbers consume 20 times more forage than wild horses, or improved the management of livestock to give the native vegetation more opportunity to grow.


© James Mayfield
"In some areas, GAO found that BLM increased authorized livestock grazing levels after it had removed wild horses, thereby negating any reduction in total forage consumption and potential for range improvement. According to BLM range managers, BLM has not acted to reduce authorized grazing levels primarily because it believed it did not have sufficient range condition data to justify the reductions."

Another GAO report states: "BLM was making its removal decisions on the basis of an interest in reaching perceived historic population levels or the recommendations of advisor groups largely composed of livestock permittees." (See Item #3).

It would appear that livestock interests, seeking the permanent removal of wild horses from America's open range to make way for cattle, are influencing the BLM to remove horses from rangelands which are in good condition.

In such circumstances, isn't the role of the BLM in overseeing the welfare of wild mustangs a bit like letting a fox guard the henhouse?

America's wild horses are under intense attack at this time. The BLM is considering waiving its adoption fee and allowing immediate issuance of the title on all adopted wild horses. Under such a scheme, kill buyers would be able to "adopt" their titled mustangs and immediately sell them to slaughter, turning a handsome profit on a government freebie while American taxpayers pick up the hefty tab for round-ups.

This has happened in the past; in 1984, after massive round-ups landed 40,000 horses in holding corrals a fee-waiver programme resulted in an estimated 20,000 wild horses being sent to the slaughterhouse. The 1991 GAO report confirms this (see Item 4).

To add insult to injury, the BLM announced a proposal to euthanize "unadoptable" wild horses.

Though they can only find adoptive homes for some 2000 to 3000 wild horses each year, the BLM has continued for decades to remove horses by the tens of thousands. Now, faced with budget cuts and more horses than they can afford to care for, its "solution" to years of mis-management of wild horses is to simply kill them.

With the round ups scheduled this year, up to 30,000 wild horses could face this fate.

All of this is happening despite the fact that private livestock outnumber wild horses and burros at least 200 to 1 on public lands. Back when America's wild horses numbered in the millions, records of the time described the grasses on the range as lush and thick.

How is it that the BLM can claim that 13,000 horses are causing "poor range conditions" when they're so vastly outnumbered by domestic livestock?

America's wild horses are on the verge of disappearing due to the influence of cattle barons. They are doing all they can to remove wild horses from the American landscape and replace them with cattle.

They know any change in administration in Washington DC will lose this opportunity. Presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and John McCain are both co-sponsors of legislation to end horse slaughter and protect wild horses; neither is likely to allow such attacks on an American icon regardless of who becomes the next president.

The United States recently marked its independence on July 4th. It is ironic that a symbol of freedom, rugged individualism and pioneer spirit that Americans worked so hard to protect 37 years ago is on the verge of disappearing from public lands forever due to a few greedy individuals and an incompetent government agency.