Homeless on the range: wild horse worries

October 12, 2009

By Neil Clarkson


Members of the Onaqui wild horse herd in Utah. © BLM

Fresh proposals for managing wild horses in the US may address some longstanding problems, but they are unlikely to appease advocates worried about the way the herds are managed across the western rangelands.

New proposals for the management of America's wild horse population have drawn a mixed response from campaigners for their welfare.

US Interior Secretary Ken Salazar last week announced a raft of proposals, including acquiring more productive grasslands further east on which to manage rehomed non-reproducing herds.

He described his proposals as a cost-efficient and sustainable management programme.

It would involve the aggressive use of fertility control to manage herd numbers.

Wild horse advocates have long been critical of the bureau's management of populations on the western rangelands.

Current strategies are acknowledged as unsustainable, with the cost of keeping 32,000 wild horses in captivity taking the lion's share of the annual budget for wild horse and burro management.

In 2008, the $US27 million spent on keeping these animals represented three-quarters of that year's enacted funding level of $36.2 million for the total programme.

The Humane Society of the United States greeted Salazar's plan with what it called cautious optimism. It said it believed use of contraception offered the best option for ongoing humane management of wild herd numbers.

Madeleine Pickens, who has been promoting a huge million-acre reserve as an option for rehoming captive mustangs, also welcomed the plan. Her plan also involves use of contraception to manage numbers.

However, many wild horse advocates remain deeply concerned over current management strategies employed in controlling herd numbers on the western rangelands.

The Bureau of Land Management's aim is to maintain about 27,300 animals on rangelands set aside in legislation in 1971 for horses and burros in the West.


Wild horses being rounded up in Wyoming. © BLM
However, numbers currently stand at about 33,000 wild horses.

The current economic recession has hit adoption numbers hard, meaning the number of wild horses in captivity continues to grow.

From 2001 to 2008, the bureau removed more than 79,000 wild horses and burros from their rangelands, while placing only 47,000 into private care through adoption.

Estimates suggest that if current removal and holding practices were to continue, annual funding for the total wild horse and burro programme would reach about $US85 million by 2012, with an estimated 20,000 extra horses held in captivity.

Salazar's proposals are themselves an acknowledgement that change is needed. However, it will do little to placate wild horse advocates critical of current management practices across the rangelands of the 10 western states.

Nevada-based Wildlife ecologist Craig Downer issued a sharp rebuke, saying he was disgusted by what he described as a disingenuous plan by Salazar and bureau director Bob Abbey.

"[It] purports to be for the wild horses, all the while abandoning their duty to defend their right to live in healthy thriving numbers in their legal herd areas throughout the West."

The new plan would clear the way for more eliminations of western herds, he said.

"How hypocritical for them to say this is a turnaround, for it is the same old, same old. So many of the unique populations are being disrupted, destroyed, by these uncaring officials.

"A moratorium on roundups is urgently needed," he said.

Downer outlined his concerns about current herd management strategies to a meeting of the Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board Meeting just two weeks ago.

Downer told the board meeting in Arlington, Virginia, that a war mentality had prevailed among bureau and United States Forest Service officials since at least the early 1980s.

"This hostile attitude and the actions it has engendered target America's last wild horses and burros. Hence, the wild horse and burro programme has become among the most deviant from its true legal mandate of any national programme.

"The consequences of this have been devastating to the wild horses and burros in the wild."

He said wild horse herds had been reduced to pitifully low, non-viable populations throughout the West, or were entirely absent from many of their legal herd areas.

"Overall there are around 2000 legal acres for every horse/burro still living free. Yet, the situation has only continued to grow ever worse for those that remain in the wild."


A mare and foal from the Onaqui Herd near Dugway, Utah. © BLM
He argued that the remaining herds were entitled to protection under the Endangered Species Act.

"Many of the wild equid populations being eliminated or reduced to non-viable numbers constitute unique populations that have adapted to their diverse regions over many generations.

"These have roots going back hundreds of years, including those Spanish Mustang remnants that I have thrilled to observe in Oregon's Steen Mountains (the Kiger Mustangs) or in Montana's Pryor Mountains - the only herd area of Montana's seven legal herd areas still containing any wild horses."

"These unique populations should qualify for protection under the Endangered Species Act. They should also qualify for protection under the National Heritage Act, for their value as a unique part of American historical heritage possesses roots tracing back to the earliest of pioneer days and is equally related to their great significance to Native American culture and history.

"These two aspects are deeply appreciated by millions of Americans, but are being callously ignored by authorities today."

He said there was an urgent need to reform America's wild horse and burro programme - "to reinstate its true purpose, to place the emphasis back on wild horses and burros in the wild and, so, to truly restore the diverse herds to their legal herd areas wherever this is still possible".

"The rampage of wild horse and burro roundups that the bureau is now engaged in must be called to an immediate halt. A moratorium on these unjustified gathers must be promptly declared."

Downer cited the planned elimination of 620 "very under-populated" wild horses from 12 legal herd areas near Caliente, in Nevada, across a complex of herd areas comprising 1.4-million legal acres.

"Many of these horses have already been eliminated from the northern three of these herd areas, but nine herd areas still have some sparsely distributed horses.

"I hope and pray that their elimination from the wild can still be prevented. These are horses that I, as a fourth generation Nevadan, have visited throughout my life and their absence will be keenly felt."


Wild horses in Wyoming being taken off the range. © BLM
Their planned elimination was mainly to accommodate livestock interests, he argued.

The bureau, he said, needed to honour congressional, judicial and public pleas for fairer treatment of these animals in the wild. Fairer portions of resources needed to be allocated to them, he said, including forage and water within their legal areas.

"We humans need to recognise their great healing presence that includes their universally appreciated aesthetic value upon our public lands. These two species have done so much for mankind over the centuries, but their true place is in the wild."

Downer said control over the wild horses and burros and their 53-million-plus acres of legal herd areas must be taken from those now in charge of them, saying the animals had been betrayed.

"[They have] subverted their very right to live naturally and freely upon their legal land," he said.

He proposed the formation of a new agency to manage the wild herds, with reserve design focused on setting up complete habitats for long-term viable populations of 1000 or preferably more horses or burros.

Downer said the World Conservation Union Species Survival Commission Equid Specialist Group recommended a full 2500 individuals for population viability.

He said freely living horses and burros had earned their right to occupy the west, "to realise their own special destiny and in the process to fulfill their own special role as a truly complementary and healing presence in relation to all of life, including man".