A century ago, some 2 million horses galloped freely across the plains of North America - wild, proud creatures that have long since woven themselves into the American national image. Now, advocates for the wild horses charge that the United States is turning a callous eye toward the majestic animal that nurtured its stupendous growth.
A new federal plan calls for radically reducing the size of Mustang and wild burro herds in national forests and parks from about 40,000 to 2,700 animals. Government agencies say that the reduction is needed to prevent a destructive overpopulation of horses. But critics charge that the government's move is aimed at appeasing commercial cattlemen, who use the land for cheap grazing - they are charged $1.35 per month for enough grazing land to feed a cow and its calf for a month.
“It costs more to feed a gerbil,'' said Ginger Kathrens, a freelance filmmaker who has chronicled the lives of wild horses in the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range on the border of Montana and Wyoming. She disputed the cattle industry's claim that a burgeoning population of horses is depleting the food supply for cows. Her films show horses trailing up a mountainous patch of forest to feed and drink far upstream of the cattle. Neither disturbed the other, she said.
Cannot Kill Wild Horses
Under the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act passed in 1971, the government cannot kill wild horses. Instead, it funds adoption programs for younger, more adaptable animals, but success in placing enough of them outside their native environments has been limited, according to animal advocates.
Older horses not deemed to be adoptable are taken to “long-term holding facilities'' where they may be corralled for years, according to the Doris Day Animal League, which critiqued the government's policies in a stinging report called “Managing for Extinction.''
The League claims that reducing the wild horse and burro population by removing the healthiest, youngest animals will weaken the gene pool of the breeds and hasten their extinction. “You need 150 horses, at minimum, to have a good breeding program, in terms of long-term genetic viability,'' said the organization's Liz Clancy Lyons.
Government Says Herds Too Big
The government agencies that oversee federal wildlife preserves argue they have no choice but to prune the horse and burro populations. The herds are increasing in size by as much as 20 percent each year and will end up starving, the federal Bureau of Land Management said in a recent report.
The BLM, which administers some of the country's public lands, is responsible for most of the nation's wild horses and burros. The U.S. Forest Service also administers land with wild horses and burros, but its acreage is far smaller.
Unless the horse herds are trimmed, there will be “unhealthy competition for limited forage,'' threats to other endangered animals on the preserve and a worsening of “existing conflicts with public land users (recreation, cultural, livestock),'' the BLM report stated. A foolproof birth-control drug for horses has not yet been perfected.
The Fund for Animals claims the relocation plan will shunt many horses to adoptive owners who may be more interested in their trading value than their welfare, said Andrea Lococo, Rocky Mountain Coordinator for the animal-rights organization.
Horses Sold to Slaughterhouses
In 1997, the Associated Press reported that thousands of horses adopted out by the BLM wound up sold to slaughterhouses, with the agency losing track of 32,000 of them. Since then, the BLM insists it has tightened its scrutiny of adoption applicants, but critics are not convinced.
Larry Bryant, a national ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service, said the agency and the BLM are working hard - and in good faith - to balance competing needs. “What we try to do is adjust the total number of animals so we keep everyone satisfied,'' he said.
At least one wild horse rescuer, Linda Laurila, who runs the Rescue Ranch and Sanctuary in Whitney, Ariz., backs the BLM's plan, saying even the animals taken to BLM holding facilities, like hers, fare better than they do on lands that can't support them. “They like regular food, and they're well taken care of. Out there, they're just going to deteriorate and die,'' she said.