by Jane Briggs-Bunting
This year is the 40th anniversary of the Wild Free Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act that guaranteed some level of protection and humane treatment for the nation’s mustangs and burros.
These canny horses and burros are under scrutiny once again as equine advocates are embroiled in yet another skirmish with the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Wild Horse and Burro Program and the U.S. Forestry Service (both agencies under separate federal departments are charged with managing the populations) over round-ups, birth control and the genetic viability of the herds spread across public lands in 10 western states.
To weigh in on the BLM’s plans for the future, email comments to email@example.com and type “Comments on Strategy” in the subject line. The deadline for comments is March 30, 2011.
In the early 1990s I spent several months interviewing and reporting the major players of that era for a story on the mustangs. Partnering with a photographer friend, we documented helicopter round-ups, BLM hold pens, successful BLM adoptions and other auctions where wild horses a year and a day after their adoptions were sold for slaughter. The slaughterhouse photos were stomach wrenching though the Canadian facility was considered a model (it used two bullets to the brain rather than one to make sure the horses died instantly). I stopped eating any meat from that day forward.
Sixty years ago, Nevada rancher, Velma Johnston, nicknamed Wild Horse Annie, set out to save the wild mustangs and burros. For two decades she worked tirelessly to stop the slaughter and inhumane treatment of these animals that had become synonymous symbols of America’s West.
She became the mustangs’ and burros’ strongest advocate, and with the help of letter writing school children across the United States (I was one of them!) successfully campaigned for a federal law to protect the mustangs and burros. Congress passed the Free Roaming Wild Horse and Burro Act in 1971. It was signed into law by then President Richard Nixon on December 15 of that year.
But if anyone thought that was the end of the story, they were wrong. Units within the Departments of Interior and Agriculture, BLM and the Forestry Service, respectively were charged with protecting and managing the herds on public lands. Their efforts have been controversial from the start with the BLM, as the custodian of most of the federal lands in the west, the most frequent target for complaints.
Out west, some call the BLM the Bureau of Livestock and Mining in the belief that the agency was more interested in protecting those interests than those of the horses, burros and other wildlife on federal lands.
The BLM leases wide swaths of the federal land under its control to ranchers to graze cattle at what is considered by some to be bargain basement prices. Horse advocates charge the BLM limits the horses to far fewer herd areas, often combining both cattle and horses in the same general area, which depletes grazing land already in trouble. If push comes to shove, the critics insist, the decision is generally to remove the horses and not the cattle.
Critics say cattle ranchers are among the biggest welfare recipients in the country, in part due to these grazing lease rates.
The BLM determines the number of horses and burros that can be accommodated on the various parcels. Excess horses are rounded up or “gathered,” as the BLM prefers to call it, using helicopters, ATVs and wranglers, held in huge tracks of holding pens, then as many as possible are auctioned off across the country at BLM sponsored auctions. The minimum fee is $125.
Wild horses and burros are smart, wily and after the round-up process are generally skittish of two-legged human varmints. Once acclimated and properly and humanely gentled, however, they are loyal and reliable mounts.
The dog-sized ancestors of today’s modern horse originated on the North America continent about 57 million years ago. They likely migrated across a land bridge into what is now Russia. From there they spread through Asia, Europe and eventually Africa, though at some point they became extinct in North America for reasons unknown. The horse came back to the North and South American continents with European explorers.
Horses and burros that escaped or were abandoned by their humans eventually formed bands that spread across large swaths of the American West. Western movies and TV shows of the mid-20th Century helped create the image of these horses as symbols of the pioneer spirit and frontier history of the U.S. Ford Motor Company launched an incredibly popular car line named after them, and the Mustang is now back in the company’s line-up.
During the past 40 years, the history of the real-life mustangs and burros on federal land has been a series of controversies.
Various wild horse support groups remain the watchdogs of the BLM and Forestry Service to protect the continued health, safety, welfare and even existence of these critters.
The sparring is continual.
- population estimates by the BLM and the numbers that are round-up for sale at the auctions
- the use of helicopters, ATVs and wranglers during round-ups
- the taking of a herd’s head stallion and lead mare (the herd’s leadership that knows the location of water holes and grazing areas and the terrain, during round-ups)
- birth control methods (a vaccine made from pigs’ eggs administered by dart can block pregnancies for a season with more long-term vaccines under development; field surgeries, including gelding stallions, are reportedly under consideration)
- holding pens for the horses (mustangs come off the range without any parasites; however, they quickly develop worms and other typical equine problems when housed in close proximity in these holding areas in places like Nevada, Wyoming and elsewhere)
- the lack of consistent and wide-ranging follow-up on adopted horses and burros to ensure they are being treated humanely
- allocation of land for the herds
- scientific research on the horses, grazing lands, etc.
And so forth. Plus budget issues always plague the BLM. Funding shortfalls limit round-ups and birth control efforts.
Sadly, only a very few herd areas have a population balanced by natural predators like mountain lions and wolves. Past eradication efforts by state and federal governments and individuals have made these animals scarce.
Groups like the Colorado nonprofit Cloud Foundation, named after a magnificent white stallion in the Pryor Mountains, are pushing hard to stop the round-ups and enforce scientific methods on determining appropriate herd size; boot cattle off federal lands to make more room for native species and feral horses and burros; increase available forage areas; and improve and expand available water holes and troughs. Cattle tend to congregate at water holes. Horses come in, drink and leave, often traveling miles a day as they forage.
The Cloud group is circulating an appeal to horse lovers and others around the country to contact their Congress members to stop all round-ups by refusing to fund the additional $12M BLM has requested through the end of the fiscal year (Sept. 30) to pay for them. Right now, the BLM can’t pay for them, which is just fine as far as the horse advocacy groups are concerned.
It’s a complicated and emotional issue, but it’s impossible for me to deny the beauty and almost primal thrill of my encounters with a wild herd on the Pryor Mountains on Wyoming. That is one of the nation’s most unique herds. Some of these horses have barb stripes and are the most threatened by round-ups. This 2009 YouTube video provides a glimpse of these unique mustangs.
Another push by the horse groups is to make round-ups more humane by banning helicopter chases, limiting the distance the horses can be chased and even banning one of the subcontractors the feds use. They also believe that increasing adoption numbers and being more selective of the horses removed from the range (e.g. younger horses) makes more sense than the collective sweep that includes animal 10 and older who are virtually unadoptable.
The groups also support banning any burro round-ups February through August, stopping helicopters from using the skids to strike horses and burros (seems reasonable to me!) and banning the use of electric cattle prods on the horses and burros (that also seems reasonable to me.)
Advocates also want more transparency from the feds from start to finish (wouldn’t we all in all aspects of the federal government and at state levels, too); some advocates given seats on the BLM’s decision-making committees that set suitable population numbers; live streaming web cameras in holding areas, on helicopters and at trap corrals; and a database tracking vital information on every horse and burro that is captured and adopted, to list just some of their wish list.
Sixty years ago Wild Horse Annie took up the reins for the fight to save these horses and burros. Forty years ago, with the help of America’s school children, a lot of folks thought she got the job done when Congress unanimously passed a law to protect and manage these animals.
That wasn’t true, but it was an important start, and it’s why these critters still roam freely in some areas of the American West today. (Nevada, with its vast tracts of federal land, has the largest population and is the home of the Wild Horse and Burro Program headquarters.)
Today, these horses and burros urgently need help again. Please get informed, read the BLM’s strategic plan for the future, and weigh in with your comments on email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Make sure to type in the subject lines “Comments on Strategy.” The deadline for comments is March 30, 2011.
The Cloud Foundation has even drafted a sample letter. Check it out.