They’ll Shoot Horses, Won’t They?
SONOMA, Calif. — Should the federal government encourage the slaughter of a living symbol of the American West?
While blunt, this question is unfortunately not hyperbole when it comes to America’s wild horses. This week the House Appropriations Committee approved an amendment that would eliminate longstanding restrictions on killing wild horses and burros.
And it could get worse: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is also pushing to end the ban on selling these animals for slaughter for food in Mexico and Canada; at the same time, Mr. Zinke wants to cut funding for fertility control — the only scientifically recommended, humane tool available to manage wild horse herds.
Lawmakers in Congress must decide: Are they — and more important, their constituents — comfortable with the killing of animals that for nearly 50 years have been under congressional protection?
For years, the answer has been no, as legislators from both parties have sided with the 80 percent of Americans who, polls show, oppose horse slaughter. But they are being lobbied heavily by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management and a small but vocal group of ranchers who graze their livestock on public lands, who say the current practice of annual roundups of wild horses isn’t working.
Representative Ken Calvert, a California Republican who heads the Appropriations subcommittee that controls the bureau’s budget, said, “We simply cannot continue to shove more and more wild horses and burros into holding facilities and act as if that’s somehow a good outcome for these animals or taxpayers.”
He’s not entirely wrong: A new approach to protecting America’s 73,000 wild horses and burros is in fact needed.
The bureau spends $80 million a year to drive wild horses by the thousands each year off the public lands they call home. Under its Wild Horse and Burro Program, these animals are herded by helicopters for hundreds of miles over rugged terrain into pens. The cruel roundups cause injury, suffering and death.
The bureau argues that wild horses are damaging Western grazing lands — a questionable claim, and one that ignores the millions of head of private livestock that it allows to graze on those same public lands. Even though, compared with wild horses, livestock graze on eight times as much federally managed land and consume 55 times the amount of food, a blinkered bureau sees the wild horses as the problem — despite explicit orders from Congress to protect them.
The result has been a self-defeating feedback loop that wastes taxpayer dollars and endangers the welfare of thousands of animals. As the National Academy of Sciences explained in a 2013 report funded by the bureau, a policy that focuses solely on moving wild horses to corralled land is “likely to keep the population at a size that maximizes population growth rates, which in turn maximizes the number of animals that must be removed to holding facilities.”
Thankfully, unlike many of the policy issues plaguing Congress, this problem does have solutions that are both fiscally sound and grounded in science. As advocates and even some local bureau offices have shown, there are effective methods to reduce fertility in wild horses. Using dart guns, small teams of workers can effectively control large populations of wild horses without having to permanently corral them.
Mustang near Bishop, CA photo uncredited
Such an approach is “a more affordable option” than current bureau policy, according to the National Academy of Sciences, and it doesn’t involve euthanasia or selling animals to slaughterhouses.
But the Interior Department seems adamant, and in response has undertaken a campaign to spread misinformation to confuse the issue. At a recent House hearing, Secretary Zinke conveniently ignored the National Academy of Sciences report, instead telling lawmakers that fertility control efforts were a failure and nearly impossible to carry out.
Nonprofit organizations like ours have disproved that claim. With less than $50,000 and a team of six volunteers, our Virginia Range project is undertaking a birth-control program for a herd of more than 3,000 horses spread across over 300,000 acres in Nevada. Already this year we’ve vaccinated more mares with birth control than the bureau did all of last year.
Given this, lawmakers should question why the bureau is so eager to strip these protections from the wild horses and burros Congress acted unanimously to protect in 1971. More important, lawmakers should ask themselves whether it makes more sense to embrace a fiscally sound, science-based plan that would protect wild horses, or an approach that ends in slaughter for these cherished icons of the American West.
Ellie Phipps Price, a vintner, is the president of the American Wild Horse Campaign.