In response to widespread public protest, the Bureau of Land Management has put the brakes a controversial plan to relocate 32,000 of a total 59,000 wild mustangs and burros from their protected Western ranges to private lands in the Midwest and East.
The BLM had claimed that, because the range could support less than 27,000 horses, the relocation was necessary to: 1) prevent devastation of the fragile desert ecosystem; 2) spare the horses slow deaths from starvation; 3) reduce the mustang program’s costs, which had risen from $39 million to $50 million in the past year.
Under the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act, passed unanimously in 1971, wild mustangs were granted protection “from capture, branding, harassment, or death” and were “to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands.”
Mustangs were deemed worthy of this special protection as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West” that “contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people.”
A Thriving Natural Balance
The Director of the BLM was charged with ensuring the mustang’s protection, but was given broad powers “to achieve and maintain a thriving natural ecological balance on the public lands. He shall consider the recommendations of qualified scientists in the field of biology and ecology.” Relocation, contraceptives, and the destruction of diseased animals was sanctioned, but sales, direct or indirect, to slaughterhouses were forbidden.
Every year, ostensibly to control overpopulation and range degradation, the BLM holds auctions of captured mustangs & burros. Helicopters are used to stampede the horses toward wranglers with lassos, who load them onto trucks. In each roundup, a significant number of horses are injured, break legs, or are trampled.
“Own a Piece of Our Western Heritage!”
You can adopt a mustang for $125. With a typical, domesticated riding horse costing anywhere from $1,500 to $15,000, that’s a great deal. ‘Cept your new mustang comes untrained, panicked, liable to smash through fences, and near impossible to handle, much less to ride. In other words, wild.
I’ve handled numerous mustangs, and am just finishing up a months-long (and successful) retraining of a client’s mustang. In my opinion, they aren’t worth the effort. Granted, they have a compact, well-proportioned conformation, good stamina, and strong hooves. Their exotic look and mystique bring a certain cachet to the owner, especially here out West. Show riders and advanced amateurs appreciate their brio. On the down side, their extreme sensitivity demands expert skills and eternal patience, neither of which most horsemen possess.
Sadly, the two types of owners a mustang is most likely to get are the ones he’ll respond worst to: either a so-called “cowboy” with their method of “breaking” a horse through aggression and fear, or a soft-hearted amateur who coddles the horse, expecting it to respond in appreciation for being “rescued”. Isolated success stories exist, but on the whole, the BLM adoption program has been a dismal failure. Even with the recent introduction of a pre-adoption training service, the number of takers, never high, keeps dropping. Many of the captured horses cannot be placed, and those that do often end up passed from one disappointed owner to the next.
Necessary or Just Evil?
“But even with all its drawbacks”, you’re probably thinking, “adoption is a better fate than starvation or culling.” I’d always thought so, too. Because the mustangs are overpopulated and will starve if nothing’s done, right? And, as a non-native species, they destroy the fragile terrain, right? The news of the proposed mustang relocation led me to do a little research, and what I uncovered belied the BLM claims, and revealed a nefarious motive.
• Through frequent removals, the BLM has reduced the original 55 million acres of mandated mustang range to 35 million, and has leased 95% of that to cattle and sheep ranchers;
• The BLM claims that herds quickly expand beyond a size supportable by their ranges. Yet the GAO and the National Academy of Sciences found the BLM had intentionally exaggerated the true growth rate by 250%, and that conditions actually worsened on ranges where horses had been removed;
• Mustang numbers largely stabilize without any interference. Any overpopulation issues that do exist could be resolved by reintroducing the large predators which were exterminated to appease ranchers;
• The vegetation on the designated ranges is more than adequate to support the mustang, but the BLM restricts their water access to as little as 7% of what is available;
• Field research has shown that ecosystems are actually enhanced and strengthened by the presence of mustangs;
• The wild horse has been a harmonious component of the ecosystem for over 300 years;
• The 28% jump in operating costs was due entirely to the unprecedented capture of 33,000 horses in one year. Three-quarters of the program costs are now due to caring for the captured horses.
If the mustang is in no real danger, and poses no threat to the ecosystem, why is the BLM working so hard to remove them? It’s a battle of numbers and of money. The 60,000 mustangs have Cheryl Crow, Viggo Mortensen, and Kevin Nealon on their side, plus a few biologists, environmentalists and horsemen. The 1,000,000 cows and sheep that denude BLM land, for a monthly fee of $1.35 a head, are supported by the wealthy ranchers and their cronies in Congress and the BLM. The ranchers, along with oil & gas drillers, are eager to get their greedy paws on even more of that practically-free federal land – but the mustangs are in the way.
Via loopholes in the original Wild Horse Act, the BLM is abusing its power to regulate the mustang population, aided by a 2005 amendment, snuck through Congress by Conrad Burns (R-Montana), and signed by President Bush. The Burns Amendment forces the BLM to sell off every horse 10 years or older, or any horse passed over for adoption three times. It also revokes the ban on selling mustangs for slaughter, and BLM employees admit off-the-record that as many as 9 of every 10 captured mustangs end up on the killing floor.
Farewell to Mustangs
While public outcry has stalled the massive mustang diaspora, the issue may soon be moot. Every year, the BLM removes horses from ranges it declares temporarily unable to support them. The mustangs are never returned, but the cows and sheep are allowed to stay. In this way, 20 million acres of federal land, which Congress bequeathed in perpetuity for wild horses, has been handed over to private ranchers.
The BLM also has plans to swap most of the remaining 27,000 free-roaming horses with geldings and with mares injected with contraceptives. Experts note that the wild numbers are already too low, and the herds too isolated, to support a viable population, ensuring the eventual extinction of the wild mustang.
(c) 2010 by ‘tamerlane.’ All rights reserved.