Skeleton crews to care for mustangs during shutdown

Wild horses in the Owyhee management area.
Wild horses in the Owyhee management area. © BLM

Skeleton crews will be kept on duty to care for the thousands of captive wild horses under the direct control of the Bureau of Land Management as the massive US federal shutdown takes hold.

The Bureau of Land Management said the minimum number of employees needed to humanely care for the horses were deemed exempt from the shutdown.

“Normal feeding and monitoring of the health of the animals should continue,” the bureau said in its contingency plan documentation covering the shutdown.

The bureau said employees were also needed to oversee contractors and to address animal health issues, as well as communication with veterinarians as required.

However, the wild horse and burro adoption program would be a casualty of the shutdown.

The American Horse Council, in a memorandum issued as the shutdown loomed, said it expected an impact on many horse-related activities with federal input, with agencies still working on their shutdown plans and determining essential and non-essential operations at the time it was issued.

US President Barack Obama.
US President Barack Obama. © Pete Souza

The council noted that border inspection services required for the import and export of horses were deemed essential and there would be no lapse in service. Import, export and quarantine facilities were run on a user-fee basis and would continue to operate as usual.

Testing at the National Veterinary Service Laboratory in Ames, Iowa, will be suspended. However, tests which are pending during the shutdown will be finished. All incoming tests will be suitably stored by US Department of Agriculture Animal Plant Health Inspection Service staff and processed at a later date.

In case of a disease outbreak, high priority tests will be done on a case-by-case basis.

The Department of Agriculture is also responsible for the enforcement of the Horse Protection Act, and the slaughter horse transport program regulations. It was likely the shutdown would impact these programs, the council said.

Many equestrians were dependent on federal land for recreational opportunities. The National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management are closing and securing park, refuge and visitor facilities on public lands.

National Forest recreation sites across the US, which require a government employee to stay open, would also be closed to the public.

The council noted that a government shutdown would halt the processing of applications for temporary overseas workers in both the agriculture and non-agriculture areas. This had the potential to delay or prevent many employers in the horse industry from obtaining workers when needed.

Visas for foreign competitors at US equine events could also be delayed.

The Humane Society of the United States said it did not expect that the Department of Agriculture would be able to meet its responsibilities under the Horse Protection Act to ensure that Tennessee walking horses were not subjected to soring.

“Without federal government funding, we expect that USDA oversight and inspection will not be provided at Tennessee walking horse shows, and the USDA will not be able to impose penalties upon violators to prevent cruelty to these horses.”

It said that the Bureau of Land Management would be unlikely to be able to proceed with the more humane and fiscally responsible short-term roundups needed for the application of fertility control and release of horses to live on the range.

The wild horse advocacy group, Protect Mustangs, voiced its concerns over the shutdown and the ongoing care of horses held by the bureau.

It said it was worried about mustangs caught “in limbo” from the Sheldon Wildlife Refuge roundup in Nevada, organized by the Forest Service.

Executive director Anne Novak said: “This is a perfect example of why wild horses and burros should be living on the range and why 80 percent of America’s wild horses and burros should not be kept in federally funded facilities.”

The group said the horses were in temporary holding this week.

“We are concerned the wild horses are suffering in pens without care,” said Kerry Becklund, director of outreach for the group.

“We want to have access to monitor captive wild horses to ensure their care. We have volunteers who will help at all the holding facilities as needed during the government shutdown. We’re here to help.”

The federal shutdown, resulting from Republican and Democrat lawmakers failing to agree on a budget, means 700,000 workers have been sent home and will not be paid for the duration of the impasse.

President Barack Obama, in a statement to federal workers, said Congress had failed to meet its responsibility to pass a budget before the fiscal year began on Tuesday, forcing the shutdown.

“I want you to know that I will keep working to get Congress to reopen the Government, restart vital services that the American people depend on, and allow public servants who have been sent home to return to work.”

He told them they had performed their work in a political climate that, too often in recent years, had treated them like a punching bag.

“This shutdown was completely preventable. It should not have happened. And the House of Representatives can end it as soon as it follows the Senate’s lead, and funds your work in the United States Government without trying to attach highly controversial and partisan measure in the process.”

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