America’s last remaining wild horses and burros are being unjustly and drastically rounded up, mainly by means of being brutally chased by helicopters into makeshift corrals and then being shipped off to holding facilities where few are ever adopted.
The animals have no cameras mounted on them to show the mayhem they endure. The dreadful Onaqui wild horse helicopter roundup in Utah concluded in July with 435 beautiful horses taken off the range, many of them exquisite examples of Spanish colonial mustang heritage. The Bureau of Land Management returned 123 mares to the wild after treating them with the pregnancy-control drug PZP. The animals left to roam are a disordered social group; the mature bands have been broken asunder, even though they effectively inhibited reproduction by younger stallions and mares. Additionally, their ecological adaptations are being set back — adaptations that have taken generations to establish.
All this is occurring because — contrary to the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act of 1971 — the BLM, a branch of the U.S. Department of Interior, has largely abrogated its responsibility to the wild horses and their legal habitats. The same goes for the U.S. Forest Service, the other agency charged with upholding this Wild Horse Act’s noble and ecologically-restorative provisions.
The roundups are based on ranchers’ attitude toward these highly-evolved and beneficent animals and do not reflect the naturalist approach to life that is at the heart of the federal wild horse protection law. The roundups harm the horses and burros both physically and psychologically. The scars of the unnecessary trauma they cause remain with the “gathered” horses and burros for the rest of their lives, frequently as an equine form of PTSD.
Although the BLM and Forest Service invariably claim their targeted wild horses and burros are “overpopulated,” they are almost always underpopulated; their numbers are greatly dwarfed by livestock and big game animals. The horses’ and burros’ negative impacts are grossly exaggerated while their considerable positive impacts are callously ignored.
America’s last wild-living mustangs and burros are being targeted in order to secure a virtual monopoly on public lands’ natural resources by cattle and sheep ranchers; the hunting establishment; agribusiness; developers who pump down water tables; and mining and energy companies, whose excesses are protected by the grossly antiquated 1872 Mining Law, and that squander and poison vast quantities of precious water throughout the largely-arid West.
Other tunnel-vision interests also jump on the negative bandwagon against the wild horses, including people who just seem to enjoy being disrespectful and disharmonious when it comes to Nature and the other species. That insults these magnificent and highly-evolved horses and burros, animals which have been humanity’s faithful work companions and transportation means for not just centuries, but for millennia, and to whom humanity owes an enormous debt of gratitude.
Exploiting the range
In fact, livestock interests exploit about 300 million acres of public lands in the U.S. by grazing the equivalent of a few million year-round cattle and several million sheep. Those domestic animals consume forage, water and other resources while trampling riparian and upland habitats. BLM and US Forest Service personnel largely cater to those commercial interests even though they lose millions of dollars of taxpayer money every year in the process and millions more in terms of ecosystem harm and destruction.
In contrast, the wild horses and burros account for only an estimated 70,000 to 95,000 animals (the high estimate by the BLM). It’s also important to note that a burro only consumes about half the forage as a horse or a cow. But government officials, public lands ranchers, and misled conservationists have “drunk the poison Kool- Ade” of lies against the wild horses and burros and trumpet the “damage” caused to public lands by the modest population of wild horses and burros as being dangerously high. The proponents of the roundups count on people’s ignorance and the public’s lack of questioning, concern and perspective about what is really going on.
The relative grazing, water and other resource needs of the wild equines amounts to two percent of the resource needs of the domestic livestock and big game animals on our public lands. To blame wild horses and burros for the ongoing destruction of ecosystems is both egregious and mendacious – deceptive in the extreme.
The wild horses and burros removed from the public lands in such vast numbers are taken to BLM and USFS holding corrals where the stallions usually are castrated. Mares often are treated with birth-control drugs, which harm the individuals and the social groups they belong to if the animals are returned to the wild.
‘Wiping out’ wild herds
The so-called “Path Forward” plan adopted by BLM and USFS is, in my professional opinion as a wild-horse ecologist, a “wipeout” plan, in that it “wipes out” generations of natural adaptation to the particular ecosystems from which these equines came. Natural selection is being replaced by humans’ “artificial selection” of which animals remain free and which do not, and which ones reproduce and which are prevented from reproducing.
The plan is contrary to the true intent of the Wild Horse and Burro Act, which is a clear mandate that humans allow the animals to roam free on their legal areas of public lands and have access to the resources available as the principal presences. Those areas originally were about 12% of BLM- and Forest Service-managed lands, but have been reduced by many millions of acres since the passage of the Act 50 years ago.
After roundup, the conditions in which the mustangs and burros are held are extremely utilitarian. The equines are over concentrated and, although regularly fed and watered, they live in fear. Many fall into a deep depression and some die. They are buried in large pits near the holding corrals or sent to rendering works contracted to dispose of their decomposing bodies.
Those who are not adopted are reportedly sent to long-term pastures where they supposedly live out their lives in habitats with adequate forage, water, shelter and space to move about. However, it’s been documented that hundreds or even thousands of protected mustangs are being sent off to slaughter in a grievous and gruesome betrayal of America’s national heritage species.
Although the animals are protected by federal law, there’s a loophole: Once a wild horse or burro adopter gains title, usually after one year, the adopter may sell the horse or burro at open auctions, where the vast majority of animals purchased go to kill buyers. Even the BLM’s “incentive program” that gives people $1,000 to adopt a horse or burro, sometimes results in the animals eventually being sold to kill buyers, according to a New York Times article.
Leading horses to slaughter
The current SAFE bill in Congress has passed out of the House of Representatives but still has to clear the U.S. Senate. The measure aims to stop the transport of wild horses and burros, as well as other equids, to slaughter plants in Mexico, Canada and other countries. Similar bills have died in the past.
On their legal lands, where the wild horses and burros are supposed to be given the principal resources, they are almost always allocated only a minor portion of available forage relative to what is allocated to livestock. On average the wild horses and burros get only between 10% and 15% and in some cases much less. Their legal habitats, called Herd Management Areas or Territories, are usually over-fenced and cross-fenced so as to overly restrict the natural movement patterns of the herds. This is very much contrary to the true and core intent of the Wild Horse Act, which mandates their “free-roaming” lifestyles and allows the animals to practice their instinctual, natural rest rotation.
The mustangs and burros need sufficient access to pure water in order to survive, and the BLM and the Forest Service should make sure they have that access. Yet, those agencies often fail to fend for adequate water for the herds. Instead, they allow the ranchers, miners, energy developers to monopolize the water of the legal management areas. That has become particularly apparent to me during the many photographic monitoring flights I have conducted, often with the help of the LightHawk organization, over the Herd Management Areas in several Western states.
My photographs and other documentation indicate the extreme degree to which public waters end up going to private interests. For example, in eastern Nevada, that has occurred to the extreme detriment of the wild horses both in the Ely and the Elko Districts of the BLM. The same story is repeated throughout the West. This situation represents a shameless betrayal of the wild horses and burros.
Often, as just occurred in the Onaqui Wild Horse HMA, major water sources will be turned off by ranchers once their livestock have been removed from their grazing allotments within the management areas. That situation was remedied only after public pressure was applied and the tap was turned on again. Such mean-spirited tactics are common throughout the West, but usually the wild-horse-advocating public is unaware of them and the wild horses and burros suffer greatly and often perish in dire straits as a consequence.\
Need for public involvement
Such incidents will continue unless the American public rises up and insists federal law is obeyed. We need pro-wild-horse-and-burro people in positions of authority over these equids and their habitats — people who do not gloat at making a mockery of the law meant to protect them.
Such a reform may require additional legislation to place the wild horses and burros and their habitats under a separate agency staffed by well-educated people who appreciate the naturally living equids, rather than by those who have traditionally opposed wild horses and burros in the wild.
I urge those who care about these noble animals to help protect, preserve and restore America’s precious wild, naturally-living horses and burros, together with their complete and viable natural homes. Become an active defender of one or more wild horse/burro herds and their management areas by going to www.blm.gov and learning about that agency’s wild horse and burro program and do likewise at the U.S. Forest Service site at www.fs.usda.gov.
Craig C. Downer of Minden is a wildlife ecologist and president of the Wild Horse and Burro Fund and the Andean Tapir Fund. He is the author of “The Wild Horse Conspiracy” and many scientific articles about wild horses and their environments. He worked with Wild Horse Annie (Velma Bronn Johnston) in the 1970s when the Wild Free-roaming Horses and Burros Act was first being implemented. His websites are https://thewildhorseconspiracy.org and https://andeantapirfund.com Links to the details of Downer’s “Reserve Design” proposal, a plan to restore the wild equine population to long-term viable levels, in viable habitats and in sustaining herds, may be found online.